How the GOP won yesterday (and why Chris Cillizza is wrong)

filibusterChris Cillizza argues that Sen. Rand Paul’s Freebird routine on the Senate floor last night was not a slam dunk win for Republicans.  (Lindsay Graham and John McCain, both apparently still Senators, agree.)  Cillizza’s points are mostly valid, but also mostly incorrect.

Point 1: Obama is now the tough on terror guy.

The basic point is wrong; President Obama became the tough on terror guy when Seal Team 6 successfully carried out his order to put a bullet between Osama bin Laden’s eyes.  But setting that aside, Cillizza suggests that opposing drone strikes could put Republicans in the same camp as anti-war liberals were about 10 years ago.

Democrats were perceived as weak on terror not just because they opposed the Bush wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but because they didn’t speak out one way or another for several years.  In 2003 everyone was a hawk except for Howard Dean; Hillary Clinton’s early support of the war was one issue that Barack Obama would use to pry away support during the 2008 primaries.

There’s another side to it, too: If you are going to oppose the policies of the War on Terror as a government official, you can hold press conferences, ask pointed questions at committee hearings, speak out at in-district town meetings, or engage in a host of other tactics that involve you talking.  While a sitting President and his administration can talk about their policies while killing terrorists, a sitting Senator can basically just talk.  So if talking is your only weapon, it has to be some pretty dramatic talking or you seem wimpy by default.  A filibuster works because it is definitely not the same as pointed hearing questions or town meeting blather.

Finally, while Cillizza correctly notes that drone are popular, they are popular because they Americans out of harms way.  There’s some space for moral high ground in saying those drones should not be aimed at Americans.

A definitive and unique stand like Paul’s is not a wishy-washy or knee-jerk opposition to the concept of war, but a strong and considered statement against a policy that infringes on civil liberties.

Point 2: Republicans are (still) afraid of the primary electorate.

After starting out on his own, Paul had some friends join him on the floor – including Republicans up for reelection in 2012 and a couple of 2016 Presidential contenders.  Was this a matter of pandering to tea partiers?

It’s hard to call it pandering when most of the people who joined Paul – such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee – were elected on the wave of conservative activism that has marked Republican primaries of the last three years.  Primary voters have favored candidates who stood up for individual rights and limited government.  Is it a big surprise that these people oppose a government killing its own citizens without a trial?

The continued fundamental misunderstanding of so-called “tea party conservatives” is amazing, especially from political press that ought to know better.  Voters of any stripe want strong leaders – people who can stand up for strongly-held values without sounding crazy.

Point 3: It’s the economy, stupid.

First off, can we retire this now 21-year-old phrase?

Second, this quote makes this point a bit flawed:

And, in case you forgot, the [Republican] party still lacks a big-picture vision on the way forward regarding the country’s debt and spending issues that goes beyond simply saying: “No new taxes”.

That’s funny, because Paul Ryan’s 99-page Path to Prosperity isn’t just the words “no new taxes” written over and over like the manuscript in The Shining.  Also, terms like “reducing spending” and “entitlement reform” have been bandied about by Republicans.  Conversely, Democrat solutions seem to hinge on “new taxes.”

Point 4: DC process = not good.

That’s true – but a filibuster is hardly routine DC process.  Voting against cloture is a process.  Supporting a poison pill amendment is process.  But some dude talking for 13 hours to kill time and eating a Kit Kat bar?  It’s probably not the most interesting thing in the world, but it sure isn’t ordinary.  Jimmy Stewart’s filibuster was the climax of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (just as it was in Mel Gibson’s remake).

It was a public, and coherent, display of a small government school of conservatism that helped the Republicans take the House in 2010 and will be the bedrock of future success.  It won’t win him the Presidential nomination in 2016, nor will it solve all the Republican party’s electoral problems of the 2012 cycle.  But Paul’s rant might help the party start to find it’s voice again – which is a big and important step.

Who ya gonna call?

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein revealed yesterday that Harry Reid and others feel like the filibuster has been “abused” because it takes days for the Senate to enact cloture votes.  (It sparked an interesting discussion in the Post’s message boards, as well.)

“I file cloture” — the motion to end a filibuster — “to move to discuss the bill on Monday,” Reid explained. “That takes two days to ripen. We don’t have a vote till Wednesday. Once that’s done, Republicans have 30 hours to do nothing. After the 30 hours is up, you’re on the bill. If there’s no amendment offered” — remember, amendments can be filibustered, too — “you file cloture to move to the vote. It takes two days and then another 30 hours. So that’s 60 hours plus four days to vote on the bill. That happened 67 times last year.” You do the math.

One way to make the lawmaking process more efficient would be to reduce the number of people in the legislature, or to merge lawmaking authority with the executive branch.  Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, North Korea, Germany, France, and others enacted similar systems at various times in history… though it hasn’t gone well.

Otherwise, we all may have to accept that our legislature’s inefficiency is by design.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course.

The filibuster exists to maintain the Senate’s deliberative nature, so the best reform might be to force actual filibusters.  Senators who want to extend debate should actually have to talk.

When Republicans made the same grumblings years ago, they missed an opportunity to demonstrate Democratic obstructionism on judicial nominees. The GOP could have made political hay out of CSPAN clips of Democrats talking endlessly or reading the phone book to keep debate going.  Republican parties in the home states of the filibuster-ers could have organized “Save the Judicial Branch” rallies to protest their talkative Senators.

The problem for Democrats now is that the filibuster is blocking an unpopular piece of legislation.  If I were a Senate Republican, I would welcome the chance to speak on national TV about the future of health care, about federal spending, about the risks of government running anything, and the bribes Democrats are using to win support.  And even the bill’s passage may be a losing proposition.

At the very least, we should all agree that the filibuster should be maintained so that the eventual remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington makes sense.  All in favor… say die: