An Historical View of the “Nuclear Option”

The inimitable Lee Harris weighs in on the filibuster issue going on in the US Senate lately. He sketches a history of the filibuster (showing that it is not the age-old, venerable institution that Democrats claim it to be), and in so doing puts things in a bit of context:

The Achilles’ heel of all democracies, and the explanation for why so many of them fail, lies in this ceaseless struggle. Each party, each faction becomes increasingly preoccupied with getting power or holding on to power. But because power comes from the rule of the majority, the trick to obtaining power is to get the majority of the population sufficiently worked up and disturbed over a “hot button” issue, and then to artfully channel their emotional agitation into support for a political candidate. But, obviously, such a policy, while beneficial to the interests of the parties that exploit it, is disastrous to the interests of the nation as a whole. Politics, instead of being the art of compromise, becomes the tactic of the demagogue, while politicians, instead of working to settle differences between opposing parties, devote themselves to inflaming their partisan passions, in order to exploit their quarrels for their own purposes.

According to Calhoun, the only defense against this fatal tendency within any democracy is to make it extraordinarily difficult for any partisan faction — even when the faction constitutes a numerical majority — to obtain control over the central resource of governmental power. And how else to achieve this goal than by setting up a series of obstacles on the path that leads toward the consolidation of central power, thereby lessening the odds that the citadel of power will fall into the hands of zealots out to impose their own will on the rest of society.

He summarizes by noting the following:

American politics has been repeatedly punctuated by the threats that constituted the nuclear options of their day. In addition to the impeachment of Judge Chase and the Nullification Proclamation of South Carolina in the 19th century, there is FDR’s threat to pack the Supreme Court in the 20th century; yet each of these threats, while failing to achieve their official purpose, ended up, nevertheless, by playing a decisive role in the working out of a generally desired compromise. The Supreme Court did get more liberal after FDR threatened to pack the court, just as the tariff of abominations was drastically reduced after the nullification threat. Each nuclear threat helped, in its own way, to bring about an acceptable compromise — and a compromise, it should be noted, that would probably not have been achieved if the nuclear option had not been threatened in the first place. Bluffing is often rewarded, precisely because bluffs are invariably fraught with the danger that they might be called.

If there is a sacred tradition in American politics, it is the willingness of otherwise prudent men to bluff their way up to the very brink of disaster, and then back down. We have done so over and over, and let us hope that we will do so again. The alternative, after all, is nothing short of a divided society, and an uncivil war in which the very political process itself is nullified by an excess of partisan passion.

Indeed. It is easy — perhaps too easy, in this age of instantaneous mass culture — to get caught up in the flames of partisan passion. However, we can hope that our political leaders have a little more sense, and that as individuals they are able to bear the pressures from their constituents and copartisans, and work something out. It has, after all, been reported that Senators Reid and Frist have been working on compromises behind closed doors. To date, nothing has been successful, and the two men often demonstrate that in their news conferences. Also clear from their addresses is that the Democrats are in the weaker position, and that the Republicans feel more confident of theirs. Finally, we can see the motivations behind each man’s political constituency: Those behind Reid are partisans for whom it would be acceptable, even a victory, to allow to pass (only) seven out of the ten nominees; those pressuring Frist not to compromise are partisan ideologues for whom nothing but unconditional victory would suffice. The weaker side is resorting to tradition, while the stronger side is appealing to fairness.

We’re fortunate to live in a society where politics can be treated as innocuous theatre. But it is a veil over the real work that needs to be done. So Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, do us all a favor, sit down and get to work. Otherwise the people might just demand to shove you all into a Conclave with less and less rations each day until you get your jobs done.

(Hat-tip: Andrew Sullivan)

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

4 thoughts on “An Historical View of the “Nuclear Option””

  1. I’m not at all sure that I buy Sullivan’s premise that both sides are working a low-profile effort to seek a compromise. Every version of the Democrat’s offer that I’ve seen so far contained an escape clause (words on the order of “except in extreme circumstances”, where the Democrats would be free to define what that means at any given moment) that would allow the Democrats, after getting what they want, to go back on their word and give the Republicans nothing. Furthermore, compromise goes against the current Democratic/leftist line of thought that all ideas that disagree with theirs are not just wrong but evil — witness Reid’s recent “loser” description of Bush, which, after an initial sort-of apology, he is now standing by and reinforcing. It is the current crop of Democrats who have redefined American politics as a cage match to the death, and because of this any and all compromise offers they make are inherently suspect.

    To sum it up: I’m unable to see the supposed “compromise” offers as anything other than further stalling tactics and/or attempts to tar the Republicans as unreasonable.

  2. The Democrats, though I disagree with their reasons for filibustering these nominees, are doing the right thing. Its too bad that conservatives didn’t learn this tactic a long time ago (like the 1930’s or the 1960’s)and maybe the judiciary wouldn’t be in such a mess now.

    It looks like the Democrats have finally realized that they are a minority party and have started acting like one. State’s rights, filibusters, federalism and strict constitutional construction should be their weapons of choice. Just like Republicans in the 1970’s and 80’s (ironic, huh?).

    If some people would step back away from myopic, short term partisan cheerleading they would see that this is how the system is supposed to work.

  3. A president ought to get the appointees he wants. The voters knew when they elected him that he would appoint people he likes as judges. That’s part of the deal in any US presidential election. Now the Democrats are defying the will of the electoral majority as a matter of partisan politics, and they have the chutzpa to suggest that Republican insistence on getting judges approved is somehow contrary to the spirit of our legislative system. The Senate ought to vote, for the good of the country. Too many judicial appointments are being delayed.

    Excuse my cynicism, but I am certain that that if the parties’ roles were reversed the Democrats and press would be pillorying the Republicans for obstructionism. That’s what happened, for example, in the “government shut-down” of 1995, and the Republicans had a Congressional majority even then.

  4. I’m actually shaking my head over the ineptness of both parties. It seems they’re both playing the game below professional level. Bolton seems to me to be a pretty regular kind of guy. The GOP needs to fill the airwaves with rants about Democrat obstructionism, and the Democrats need to air proof positive why they won’t confirm Bolton. It’s possible both sides are stockpiling for the ’06 campaign.

    Still, in the short term, the winner is Bush, no matter how the MSM tries to portray it. With no UN Ambassador (or a lame duck one), Bush doesn’t really have to deal with the UN, which is a good idea while the Senate, uh, “complements” the Volcker Commission. Meanwhile, for all that the Democrats go on ad nauseam about how we need to repair relations with the UN, the message their obstructionism is sending is that they don’t actually care enough to get a person installed. Try as they might to poing to Bolton’s temperament, which has to do with his insufferance of fools that work for him rather than his peers, the Europeans had already come out at the beginning of the year as saying that while they don’t love Bolton, they can work with him.

    So basically, from a technical point of view, it can be argued that the Democrats are correct. But that’s a Pyrrhic victory if they truly believe in their own ideals. The Democrats aren’t choosing their battles very wisely, but they persist in doing so because the Republicans are fighting those battles incompetently.

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