Today's Hagel-Mania Report: Calling Things What They Are

More

Below we have the front pages of this morning's papers. Today the "calling things by their right name" trophy goes to the Washington Post. The Post's headline uses the word "filibuster"; the subhead uses the word "unprecedented"; and the line below that -- a "dek" in our parlance, not sure what they call it at the Post -- makes clear that this is purely obstructionist delay, since Hagel will probably still get through. 


HagelFeb15.png

Plus we have the Post's online presentation, in which the headlines for all five stories unashamedly use the mot juste:

HagelFilibusterWaPo2.png

Meanwhile the NYT avoided using the word "filibuster" in the front-page portion of its story, reserving it for the jump on page A17; and the WSJ did so only when directly quoting President Obama. The Journal also found itself using circumlocutions of this sort:
Republicans had invoked rules to force Mr. Hagel to win 60 votes in the 100-member chamber, a standard that had never been applied to a nominee to lead the Pentagon. He received 58 votes.

Democrats protested the need to win 60 votes. "We've never had a secretary of defense filibustered before; there's nothing in the Constitution that says somebody should get 60 votes," President Barack Obama said Thursday.
The background here, of course, is that Hagel's opponents want to keep his nomination from coming up for a simple-majority vote, but they don't want these tactics to be called what they are. As Sen. Inhofe so memorably put it, "It's not a filibuster. I don't want to use that word." But at least all three papers made clear that this was not some matter of generalized "dysfunction" or "gridlock" in Congress but in fact an intentional blocking tactic from one side.

Now, readers weigh in. In response to another reader's suggestion that the Tribe of Elders among GOP defense experts -- Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, Robert Gates, George Schultz, etc, all of whom support Hagel -- try to shame the obstructionists and call out for quick confirmation, this response:

What good would a stern talking-to from that group do? 

Those men retired and the GOP "they knew while they were in office" no longer exists, however much they may long for it.  It isn't waiting in the wings somewhere; it's dead.  It was very deliberately and systematically killed off by the GOP we have now. 

Strom Thurmond probably longed for the Democratic Party he knew before the Civil Rights Movement, but that only made him less relevant to the Democratic Party that replaced it.  His views were the very thing the party intentionally cast out of itself.  Powell, et al., are similarly situated.  Their pragmatism in governance and realism in foreign policy are the very things the current GOP deliberately and systematically cast out of itself.  It could hardly be less interested in what they think.  It wants purity, and they are RINOs. 

Which is to say they are in exactly the same category Chuck Hagel is in, for exactly the same reasons.  Which is to say that if their opinions still carried weight in the GOP, they wouldn't need to express them in this context.  Hagel would already be approved.

And to the same effect, from a reader in the Midwest:

I think your reader, and a lot of supporters of these 'moderate' Republicans (at least where national security is concerned), miss something: they functionally have no power and essentially no sway in the modern GOP.

From where I sit as a denizen of a midwest state, Iowa, which could go either way in any election for statewide or national office, the current GOP pays no attention to anyone who doesn't either have a lot of money, or a lot of support at the base. While Powell, Gates, Scowcroft and Schultz may have a long tradition of service to the country and a lot of mindshare among the foreign policy elites around Washington, they have essentially no power.

The elected officials of the GOP care only about elections at this point: winning them and rigging the system to allow them to continue to win them. The threat of Tea Party challenges ratchets elected officials ever further to the right, and the need to raise incredible amounts of money from the rich to fight primary challenges and general elections (where their stances coming out of the primaries makes them increasingly less competitive in statewide elections) means that the old, non-officeholding guard that previously held influence by length of service and regard as 'Serious Men' have no real power. Look at what happened to Bob Dole on the Disabilities Treaty.

Whatever the Old Guard says, even if it's a full throated roar of approval for a vote on Hagel combined with all the back room arm-twisting they can manage, I doubt it will have any noticeable influence.

From another reader, on Harry Reid's recent and apparently already-nullified "agreement" with Mitch McConnell about limiting abuse of the filibuster:

It is worth noting that one of the mildest proposals for filibuster reform at the start of this legislative session was to require the filibustering side to muster 40 votes to deny cloture, which is subtly but importantly different from requiring the majority to muster 60 votes.

I don't know what happened to that idea.  It sure seems like that is the very least that Reid could have demanded in his negotiations with McConnell.  It sure would have made a difference here.

Caveat:  Orrin Hatch, for whatever reason, voted "present".  If his vote had been needed for a 40-vote threshold, perhaps he would have acceded and voted with the obstructors.  So maybe the only real effect would have been to make Hatch stick his neck out.

Finally for today's installment, another reader with an idea of what veteran politicians could do, if they adopted an "intensify the contradictions" / "the worse, the better" outlook:

Earlier this week, I think it was after reading the first rumblings from Sen. Inhofe that a filibuster of Hagel was in the making, I already started thinking that we're probably past the point of no return in the Senate. I think the only way to resolve the problem is to take things to their logical conclusion:

One of our esteemed Senators must step up and use his/her exalted Hold privilege...to start placing holds on absolutely every item of business that comes up. Declare that no nomination, no resolution, no bill will proceed until the chamber's rules are fixed to prevent a single Senator (or small group) from hijacking the process. And I do mean everything: be prepared to force the courts, executive agencies, and everything else to grind to a halt until this particular, quirky whim of a single Senator is satisfied. Dare the chamber to either expel him/her or invoke the 'nuclear option' in order to  lift the holds without having to fix the filibuster rules.

The irony of a single Senator using its 'hallowed' rules to destroy it would be delicious (and absurd!). Yet it seems that many, both inside and outside the Beltway, are incapable of seeing the damage wrought by the Senate's rules until someone actually has the guts to demonstrate it.

Sadly, our current political class seems incapable of acting until a crisis is upon them, so maybe it is time to force a showdown.

I think the only ones capable of pulling off this sort of stunt are those senior Senators who have decided to retire at the end of their current terms, and thus can think in 'institutional' or 'legacy' terms rather than considering their personal political prospects. Unfortunately, those are also the people least likely to feel that the filibuster rules are such a major Constitutional problem.

But it's a satisfying dream...
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In