The divergent partisan reactions to last week’s Senate deal on judicial nominations says less about the substance of the agreement than the mood within the two parties.
Like any plausible compromise, the agreement caused pain for both sides. But conservatives are much more incensed about it. Social conservative leader James Dobson virtually threatened to excommunicate from the Republican Party the seven member senators who supported the accommodation, under which Republicans agreed to oppose a ban on judicial
filibusters so long as Democrats use the tactic only under “extraordinary
Among Democrats, some have claimed outright victory, though that seems more about playing to the cameras than a genuine assessment of the terms of the deal. Many on the left condemned it as a capitulation, among them leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus. Most Democrats seem to regard the deal less as a victory or a defeat than a disengagement that defers the toughest battles.
It’s difficult to say substantively that either side won. Democrats achieved their highest objective by maintaining the right to filibuster judicial nominees, at least in principle. In practice, the deal has unquestionably circumscribed that right.
Five of the seven Republican senators who signed on seemed likely to oppose the filibuster ban even without an agreement. But two others, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike DeWine of Ohio, made it clear that absent the deal, they would have supported the ban -- and would feel free to vote for it if they believed that Democrats violated the extraordinary-
If those two were to switch, perhaps in response to a Democratic filibuster of a future Supreme Court nominee from President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) probably would have the votes to impose the ban. That means the Democratic right to filibuster exists at the sufferance of two relatively conservative Republicans.
The deal also practically ensures confirmation for three Bush appellate court nominees that almost all Democrats fervently oppose. Included in that group is California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, who might be the most ideologically doctrinaire of all of Bush’s judicial nominees.
Here is Brown’s view of the role of government, as expressed in a 2000 speech: “Where government moves in, community retreats, civil society disintegrates and our ability to control our own destiny atrophies,” she said.
“The result is: families under siege; war in the streets; unapologetic expropriation of property; the precipitous decline of the rule of law; the rapid rise of
corruption; the loss of civility and the triumph of deceit.”
It’s difficult to overstate how tough it is for Democrats to accept a nominee with such militant views. And yet it is the right, far more than the left, threatening the peacemakers.
What gives? One explanation may be that the deal challenges the dominant political strategy among Republicans, while upholding both of the approaches contending for dominance among Democrats.
Especially since Bush’s reelection, Democrats have been divided on electoral strategy. One camp believes the key to revival is courting centrist swing voters (a la Bill Clinton’s “third way”). The second says the party must emulate Bush and focus on mobilizing its base by stressing unity.
In different ways, the judicial deal is at least tolerable to both camps. Third-way types applaud it for promoting bipartisan compromise. The party-unity group likes it because it kept Senate Democrats unified against the filibuster ban.
By contrast, the deal threatens the ruling political paradigm among Republicans. Since 2001, energizing the conservative base, even at the price of straining relations with more centrist voters, has been the core of Bush’s legislative and political strategy.
That approach has generated undeniable benefits for him. The massive turnout from the GOP base was the largest factor in Bush’s reelection. His strength in culturally conservative areas has helped Republicans solidify their dominance of congressional seats in GOP-leaning “red” states.
But last week’s deal reflected a fear among some of its GOP participants that the White House had pushed that polarizing approach to the point of dangerously alienating moderate voters. Bush’s approval rating has tumbled below 50% and runs lower among independents and moderates. The numbers for Congress have been sinking like Nasdaq after the Internet stock bubble burst. In a CBS poll last week, Congress’ approval rating among independents fell to an anemic 26%.
The White House view is that none of this matters much for 2006 or 2008, so long as the GOP’s conservative base remains energized. That’s partly why the president, subtly but unmistakably, encouraged a showdown over the filibuster ban by unwaveringly insisting that he wanted an up-or-down vote on all of his nominees.
In effect, the Republicans who signed last week’s deal signaled their uneasiness with a course that places so little weight on moderate swing opinion. The 50 House Republicans who voted with Democrats last week for legislation to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research sent the same message.
Skeptics of the White House strategy still represent a distinct minority in the GOP. But if the filibuster deal and stem cell vote inspire GOP congressional mavericks and moderates to work across party lines on other issues, these initiatives could become the template for an alternative Republican approach that focuses more on persuading swing voters and less on constantly “feeding the base.”
Conservatives are guaranteed the dominant voice in the GOP for the
foreseeable future. But after last week, they no longer appear to be the only voice. No wonder so many of them are howling.
(Full disclosure: My wife recently took a job as an aide to Sen. John McCain [R-Ariz.], one of the judicial deal’s architects. Marriages that span the divide between the media and politics are common in Washington. They require both parties to draw a firm line between their personal attachments and professional responsibilities. I do not intend to treat McCain any differently as a result of my marriage, and my wife does not expect favored treatment for her boss. I certainly don’t expect any special treatment from McCain or his aides. Readers, of course, will have to make their own judgments, but I am confident that her new job will not affect my judgments, pro and con, about McCain and his initiatives.)
Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.