Chris Cilliza Is Still Wrong About the Filibuster

I’ll join those who are impressed that Chris Cillizza went back toassess why he was wrong when he asserted during the summer that the Senate would never go nuclear. Acknowledging past errors is absolutely admirable.*

So I hope I’m not being too crass by saying that, alas, Cillizza still doesn’t really get it right. The problem is that he sets it all up as a story about the Democrats and about Harry Reid in particular. Back in July, he argued that Senate Majority Leaders by their nature were always going to seek to preserve, not blow up, the institution; now, he thinks that the key thing he missed then were all the new Democratic Senators who never served in the minority and therefore were less committed to preserving Senate traditional protections.

I don’t think he gets Reid wrong (although he might have put more weight on the side of Reid that’s all about being a tough partisan fighter), and he’s right that there was a clear pattern of more senior Democrats being the most reluctant to pull the trigger.

I should get to the point: what Cillizza gets wrong, both in July and now, is that the key players here weren’t Reid and the Democrats; this was all about the Republicans. As I’ve said many times, there’s always going to be a tension between what’s best for Senators as individual Senators, and what’s best for them as party members. The more the minority obstructs, the more that party incentive kicks in. As obstruction ratcheted up in the 1990s, 2000s, and then the Obama era, it’s not clear exactly where the line is where the party incentive clearly takes over, but it’s certain that “nullification” obstruction was solidly over that line.

It took a while for nullification obstruction of executive branch positions produced an ultimatum and a showdown, but that’s what this summer’s confrontation was about. Since Republicans backed down, Democrats didn’t have to follow through. When Republicans then extended nullification obstruction to judges, Democrats predictably reacted with a new ultimatum, and had little choice but to follow through when Republicans this time did not retreat.

Indeed: what happened during the original nuclear confrontation, over appellate judges during the George W. Bush presidency, is that Democrats mostly backed down. In other words, one could argue that in that case, too, the key was the minority party — first in ratcheting up obstruction, and then in backing down when it resulted in a nuclear threat.

Sure, the majority isn’t totally passive, and isn’t purely just reacting. It’s certainly possible that a more senior group of Democratic Senators might have been more patient at the end. But any analysis that doesn’t mainly focus on the unprecedented obstruction of the Obama era is really just missing the biggest part of the story.

*And, again very much to his credit, it’s something he does all the time. I thought that I had written something about Cillizza’s claim back in July and went hunting for all the things I’ve written about him here, and while I found a lot of pretty harsh crankiness (he seems to have been one of the first inspirations for Cranky Blogging), I also found several times he was featured in “Read Stuff” for good pieces — and, in particular, good pieces in which he looked at criticism of things he had written and decided the critics had a point. So being open about his mistakes is nothing new for Cillizza. It’s an absolutely great but fairly rare quality for any pundit or reporter, or for that matter anyone, I suppose.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.