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May 24, 2005
Two Editorials, Two Directions, And A Significant Abstention

The fourteen Senators who banded together last night to reach a compromise on judicial confirmations expect, I'm sure, to bask in the glow of an approving Exempt Media blitz, and they will certainly receive that, to a certain extent. However, this morning's editorial pages from the three most influential newspapers demonstrates more diffidence than love.

The Washington Post treats the centrist minority as conquering heroes:

It is a demonstration, in an era of increasingly bitter partisanship, of what can still be accomplished through negotiation and the proffer of a modicum of trust across the aisle. Interest groups on both sides railed against compromise and threatened its architects; Senate leaders of both parties and the president did more to obstruct a deal than to facilitate it. The 14 senators nonetheless managed to put principle above self-protection.

Put principle above self-protection? What principle was that? Even the Washington Post can't identify it:

The deal is admittedly messy. Some nominees get votes, some still don't; the principle isn't terribly clear. It isn't specified what constitutes "extraordinary circumstances"; the members have to trust in one another's good faith. But the deal is far better than the alternative.

The principle that the Republicans gave up -- or put off, depending on how one interprets the agreement -- is that the Constitution sets the rules on interbranch transactions, not one branch over the other. This agreement endorses the use of the filibuster, an internal Senate rule, to block their Constitutional duty of advice and consent unless a supermajority can be achieved. As I wrote yesterday, filibusters are fine for legislation, but applying them to executive appointments puts the Senate above the Executive in a manner that contradicts the equal Constitutional status of the two branches.

Now, since even the Post's cheerleaders can't identify a single principle that this agreement preserves, I would have preferred that the principles of the Constitution had been protected instead. After all, that's what these fourteen men and women swore to do when they joined the Senate, an oath that both they and the Post have forgotten in their haste to protect their media images as reasonable centrists.

The adulation stops at the Post, at least this morning. Another of the triumvirate, the Los Angeles Times, scorns the deal and scolds the fourteen for not only blocking the elimination of the filibuster for judicial nominations but for keeping it at all:

Above all else, what the agreement preserves is the power of the Senate. Amid the press conferences and floor speeches, perhaps the most telling comment was that, with the deal, "the Senate is back in business."

The quote was from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), but the sentiment was near universal. In the Senate, business as usual too often amounts to delay and obstruction, and the chief enabler in this process is the filibuster. Under the terms of the deal announced Monday, Senate Democrats essentially agreed not to filibuster some of the president's judicial nominees if Senate Republicans agreed not to abolish the filibuster. We'll let you have this gun, Republicans told their colleagues, as long as you promise not to use it. ...

It hardly qualifies as commentary to note that politics trump principle in Washington. But it is worth pointing out that many of the same conservative Republicans who insisted that every judicial nominee deserves an up-or-down vote are threatening to filibuster a bill encouraging stem cell research. Many Democrats, meanwhile, came to realize that the filibuster is one of the shining jewels of American democracy only when they were in the minority.

As this page has argued, the filibuster is essentially a reactionary tool that unduly empowers obstructionist minorities. Due to its disproportional representation California (population 36 million) and Delaware (population 830,000) each get two senators minority rights are already well protected in the Senate. The filibuster, as an additional brake on democracy that goes beyond the constitutional framework to give individual senators even more power, should have been nuked for all purposes, not just in the context of judicial nominees.

I suspect that the LA Times identifies the "principle" that evades the Post's editorial board. The fourteen so-called centrists want to return to non-contention in the Senate, a place where no real conflict exists except a few debate sound bites to satisfy the red-meat portions of each party. After all, what do we have in this agreement that doesn't match up with the oldest form of politics: a secret agreement from a smoke-filled room among a handful of politicians working outside accountability and leadership? Many people, and not a few Senators, have lovingly referred to the "clubbiness" of the upper chamber, and now they have it back again. In truth, what they wanted was a lever to arrogate power back to a handful of Senators who will continue to work behind the scenes to undermine the will of American voters on both sides of the political divide, in the name of "compromise" and reasonableness.

Hey, Dred Scott was a compromise. So was Plessy v. Ferguson. Compromise doesn't equate to wisdom.

Speaking of wisdom, the centrists failed in achieving the Crown Jewel of editorial blessings, the New York Times. The Paper of Record suddenly went silent over arguably the biggest political story of the session. Instead of issuing hosannas for the centrists -- which they surely expected -- the Times instead focused on the big political issues of weapons in space, a report on Pat Tillman's death from friendly fire, and opposition to a West Side football stadium. Apparently, the Gray Lady couldn't find a principle at work, either.

The morning after their obscene display of effusive self-congratulation -- Robert Byrd even proclaimed that the Republic was saved, as if America had been built on and for the filibuster -- their target audience remains unimpressed. The centrists did no more than punt, and they stopped one of the more important debates that the Senate faced in years just to gain themselves the satisfaction of returning to secret handshake deals in back rooms rather than publicly representing their constituents.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 24, 2005 5:43 AM

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