(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) Court-watchers have debated for weeks both the likelihood and the propriety of the filibuster against Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch that Senate Democrats have threatened. But now that the filibuster is about to occur, the debate has moved to whether the procedural roadblock is politically smart.
As with the other debates, there’s little room for middle ground; very few shades of gray: The filibuster on Gorsuch is either one of the most idiotic political moves of the century so far, or else it’s a stroke of genius.
A filibuster, of course, is a Senate tactic in which a minority effectively requires a 60-vote threshold (out of 100 senators) in order to let legislation or a nomination be confirmed. In return, the Republican majority is threatening to use the so-called (and controversially named) “nuclear option” to change the rules and make a filibuster unusable.
At Real Clear Politics alone on Tuesday, the top three articles all addressed this dispute. National Review editor Rich Lowry, writing at the New York Post, calls it “the dumbest filibuster in U.S. history.” But Julian Zelizer of CNN says (as summed up in the headline) that “Gorsuch filibuster would be good for Democrats.” And RCP’s own writers James Arkin and Caitlyn Huey-Burns report that Democrats have concluded “they are better off politically in opposing anything Donald Trump touches.”
Lowry and Zelizer see things quite differently.
“A Gorsuch filibuster would be an act of a sheer partisan pique against the wrong target, with the wrong method, at the wrong time,” Lowry writes. And, later: “It would be shrewder for Schumer to keep his options open for a future nominee. If there’s another vacancy, perhaps Trump will nominate a lemon, or the Republicans won’t be so united, or the higher stakes of a conservative nominee replacing a liberal justice will create a different political environment. In these circumstances, it’s possible to imagine Democrats filibustering and Republicans not managing to stick together to exercise the nuclear option.”
“Democrats have been arguing for decades that the filibuster doesn’t tend to benefit their party,” counters Zelizer, a professor at Princeton. “The Senate is already an institution that favors smaller states, and the filibuster, empowering the minority, has turned the upper chamber into a supermajoritarian body. Given that Democrats tend to come from the more populous states, over time Democrats suffer on this and other issues.”
Moreover, Zelizer posits, “Standing firm against Gorsuch could also further embolden the spirits of Democratic voters and activists who will be key in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Too often congressional Democrats forget that the need to listen to the grass roots is as important as listening to the conventional wisdom in Washington. Very often, voters, and not just the base, want their party leaders to take a stand.”
As Arkin and Huey-Burns report at RCP, the progressives really are energized on the issue.
“It is important long term for the Democratic Party to have principles,” said Claire Sandberg, co-founder of the progressive group #AllOfUs, in an interview with RCP. “Those principles, if they mean anything at all, have to include aggressively fighting someone like Neil Gorsuch, and that has to be, across the board, the standard for the party.”
Elsewhere, political numbers-cruncher Nate Silver explains why even Democrats from heavily Republican states – mostly in the West – are letting the most liberal wing of the party control their votes. He says activists are needed to do campaign work and turn out, at high percentages, whatever Democratic voters still exist in those areas.
“The proportion of politically active Democrats who identify as liberal…[is] larger in the West than in the other political regions of the country,” Silver explains. For example, he says we should consider “Montana, where I estimate that 76 percent of politically active Democrats are liberal. That may help to explain why Sen. Jon Tester of Montana says he will vote against Gorsuch, even though he faces a tough general election campaign next year. Whether or not Democrats would issue a primary challenge to Tester, who has generally sided with the party on key votes, is questionable. Nonetheless, he’ll be relying on his base for money, volunteers and a high turnout on Election Day.”
Even so, many Republicans think these “red state Democrats” are signing their own political death warrants, because no matter how many leftist activists engage in a campaign, the greater number of available votes in these states is – the Republicans think – in the center, and even the center-right.
That’s why, writes Jonathan Tobin at National Review Online, “any idea that this will help them win back the Senate or even save red-state seats is wishful thinking.” Put even more bluntly, South Carolina’s senior senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, said to Fox News more than a week ago: “I think [filibustering Neil Gorsuch] would be dumb politically. There are at least 10 Democrats in Trump states that would look like not only did you lose the election, you lost your mind.”
Whichever side of the “dumb and dumber” debate one believes, the Democrats do seem dug in. As of this writing, at least 42 Democrats say they will indeed filibuster – and Republicans just as firmly say they are willing to use the nuclear option to confirm Gorsuch anyway. Next up: The debate over whether the Republicans’ nuke job entails any political risk at all for the GOP.