Senate Democrats blew it. Strategically they took one step forward and then two back tactically, the one familiar battle maneuver of the modern Democratic Party.
I write, of course, about the filibuster-agreement affair. Its short and unhappy life was, for the Democratic Party, good public relations in a bad bargain. Senate Dems came out on top for a change.
They managed to deflect an obstructionist public image -- never mind the image’s fairness; it was there -- while obtaining an open promise from the opposition that the judicial filibuster was fair game down the road; most importantly, in the case of Supreme Court nominations. The controversial slate of judges at hand was going to be confirmed anyway as fallout from the nuclear option, so why not score a major p.r. point in the process by looking like the reasonable ones? It was a smart move.
Now I’m not so naïve as to think Republican leaders were going to live up to the deal. That, I thought, was the whole point of Democrats brokering the deal to begin with, and was what made it so deliciously Machiavellian. They could sit and wait for the inevitable betrayal and then savage the GOP for what it is: a bunch of bullies who were poised all along to violate both the letter and spirit of the filibuster agreement. That prospect was -- and I emphasize was -- as certain as George again uttering “nucular.”
But, for Democrats, a high-flying strategy is merely an opportunity to shoot it down by shooting from the hip. In their case that means shooting themselves in the hip, which is what they promptly did in shooting down the confirmation vote on Bolton. This fringe ideologue has, just as the three appellate judges had, an excellent chance of being confirmed no matter what, and Democrats had already made their objections resoundingly clear. Stalling his confirmation made them no clearer.
But more importantly, stalling this near-certain conclusion of a farce by choking cloture only handed Senate Republicans a p.r. victory they’ll use to use to batter and ridicule the Dems mercilessly -- and in the eyes of an issue-muddled public, even justifiably.
It’s true that the brokered deal pertained only to judicial-nomination filibusters. As one of the Gang-of-14 Republicans allowed (mostly out of self-defense), "It is unfortunate. It is too bad. But the deal was on judges, not anything else."
Yet that nicety will almost certainly be lost on the public. To the great majority it was a filibuster deal, period. And there’s no doubt that’s how the GOP will exploit it, notwithstanding any mild protestations from its bipartisan moderates.
The Democrats could not have handed a prettier p.r. package to Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who had survived the parliamentary scuffle only as badly damaged goods. He never wanted the deal and was certain to look for any sleazy opening to break it. To no one’s surprise he already has, saying "actions speak volumes" in reference to the Bolton-confirmation vote and the Democratic pledge to rein in filibustering. "Tonight, after the Democrats have launched into yet another filibuster of a presidential nomination," he said, "those words seem empty and hollow."
Like all politics, this fight was about p.r. perceptions. That was the key to the filibuster deal. The Democrats held the cards for a change. With utter confidence in the inevitable, they could have waited for the GOP to trash the deal once it met with Supreme resistance. Then out the nuclear option would have come. But with the deal’s “spirit” still in place and still unmolested, the GOP would have had real problems with a disapproving public. It would have been the clear-cut bully.
Such Democratic bumbling gets tiresome to watch.