May 22, 2005

Column 2005-5-22 Commentary

5-23 Update: I find that I am forced to apologize for misjudging Brooks's column. I assumed that the column was so laughable because Brooks was a moron: instead, Brooks was in full partisan hack mode. Most of the column was really just window dressing, with the important part being the paragraph where Brooks delineated the compromise position. This compromise would allow votes on Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen, and William Pryor, the three most objectionable of Bush's nominees, in return for a couple of still objectionable but not as much so nominees being dropped and everybody promising to be good (the Democrats say that they won't filibuster judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances, and the Republicans promise not to invoke the nuclear option). This was important because the main goal of the column, in hindsight, was to establish this as a reasonable compromise, which it is not. It's a pure giveaway to the Republicans, who get to put in three truly awful judicial nominees and receive leeway to nominate further equally bad nominees (sure, the Democrats can filibuster in "extraordinary circumstances", but it's unlikely that any further nominees will be worse than Owens, Brown, or Pryor, so this gives the Republicans the ability to scream that the Democrats are violating their part of the agreement on any future judicial filibuster). Additionally, the Republicans aren't forced to go through with the unpopular nuclear option. In return, the Republicans give up a mere two nominees and promise not to use the nuclear option, a promise which is not particularly valuable since the Democrats have promised not to make its use necessary. A reasonable compromise would have shot down Owens and Brown at the very least and possibly involved resuscitating some of the rules, like the blue slip rule, which allowed nominees to be blocked without resorting to the filibuster. Of course, Brooks's masters were not interested in a reasonable compromise: as always, they were looking only for the appearance of reasonableness, and they appear to have found it, as this compromise has been struck. Incidentally, I am completely unsurprised to note that Lieberman appears to have been one of the key negotiators. The only hope is that Frist's masters are not satisfied (Frist was quick to note that he hadn't signed onto this compromise, and would Dobson please stop hurting him now?) and demand that Frist reject the compromise. To a certain extent, the Republican party has boxed itself in with a lot of high-flown rhetoric about the necessity to give every nominee an up-or-down vote, and Dobson+co. have invested a lot in the nuclear option, so it's still possible that Frist will decide that even this compromise is untenable. This would be the best possible outcome, as it might lose him all seven Republican Senators who negotiated the compromise, which would doom the nuclear option while allowing the Democrats to continue to filibuster Owens, Brown, and Pryor since the Republicans broke the deal first. Even Frist would seem to be sufficiently intelligent to figure thist out, but if the religious right can make him go on national TV and assert that AIDS is transmitted through tears and sweat, they may well be able to force him to lead the charge of the Lightweight Brigade and commit heroic political suicide for a mistake.

Today's Brooks column is actually one long joke (well, that's the charitable way of looking at it). Brooks is writing about the showdown in the Senate. He watches as the Senate Majority Leader, pushed by Dobson and his fellow members of the radical Christian right, leads the Republican party into an attempt to prevent the filibuster of a handful of extreme judicial nominees by declaring such a thing unconstitutional in order to circumvent the standard procedures for changing Senate rules. He observes Bill Frist obstinately reject any compromise offered by the Democrats, while proposing compromises which amount to the Democrats simply giving in. And then he blames the inability of the Senate to prevent this confrontation on the moderates. The silver lining here is that not even Brooks was able to twist the situation so as to suggest that it's entirely the fault of the Democrats, but this is still pretty laughable.

To start with, Brooks says that there are twelve moderate Senators currently trying to craft a compromise, six from each party. Brooks may not be up on his math, but the last time I checked twelve Senators do not come close to forming a majority. And presumably neither Harry Reid or Bill Frist are a member of the twelve -- the Majority and Minority leaders are generally expected to be fairly partisan -- or, for that matter, any members of the leadership on either side, so that any proposal which emerges will initially be backed only by those who devised it. Brooks sneers that "They can't just shove something through on the rough and dirty the way the partisans do," but the partisans can generally command more votes. Brooks then insinuates that the moderates are infirm of purpose by saying that "Some of the 12 felt compelled to check with their leaders and others in their parties, so nobody would feel offended or left out," but really, if there are only twelve of them, it seems that they would need to run any proposal by, at the very least, 39 Senators. Brooks further asserts that the moderates were spending too much time "looking for language that would codify every possible contingency" because "even moderates don't really trust one another." I can't speak to the degree of trust between moderates of different parties, but it seems pretty clear that the Democrats don't trust the Republican leadership at all, and since any compromise, to be a compromise, would require the Democrats to sign off on it, some fairly strong language to hold the Republicans to their would probably be required. And then comes the last unkindest cut: Brooks attacks the "gutless wonders" who were hoping for language to "protect them when the attacks start coming from the pressure groups on their own side." Of course, this ignores the fact that attacks are already coming and in at least one case have been directly endorsed by Frist himself. Furthermore, it's not as if there's just a couple of pro- and anti-filibuster groups involved: every conservative and liberal pressure group, from Focus on the Family to, has made this a priority. Anyone who bucks the leadership on either side is likely to be the focus of a staggering number of attacks, including a likely primary challenge the next time they come up for election. And it's difficult to expect people to come out and stand firmly on principle in the face of millions of dollars worth of attacks for a compromise.

Brooks ends the column by bemoaning the general ineffectiveness of moderates, and it is indeed diffficult to understand why it is that a small group of moderate Senators are unable to persuade the partisan majority of the Senators in their party and its loudest and most powerful voices to abandon a cause in which they are fervently invested. But as always in Brooks's columns, he is covering for the White House. Dick Cheney has endorsed the nuclear option, saying that he is willing to cast his tie-breaking vote in favor of it if necessary. Karl Rove has come straight out and said that all compromises will be rejected (apparently, he is the new Senate Majority Leader). The White House is clearly 100% behind the drive for the nuclear option, and to expect enough Republicans to break ranks to allow a compromise is extremely wishful thinking. If Brooks really wants a compromise, he would do much better to attack those who have the power to force one through, namely Frist and Bush. But since his real goal is to deflect the blame for the coming Senate shutdown from the Republican party and Bush, his attack on the moderates makes a certain kind of twisted sense.