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November 22, 2013 9:34 AM When It All Went South

By Ed Kilgore

I kinda got ahead of today’s lamentations about the Passing of the Senate As We Knew It with a post of anticipatory contempt yesterday. So I’ll just draw attention to some of what others are saying of note as the occasion arises.

In dismissing the idea that the “nuclear option” was some great leap into the abyss, TAP’s Paul Waldman traces the unraveling of rules governing partisan behavior to the events of 2000:

Let’s say that it’s 2017 or 2021, and they’ve won the presidency and the Senate. Can anyone believe that if on this day in 2013 the Democrats decided to keep the filibuster for judicial nominations, Republicans would then do the same out of a sense of fair play? This is the party that over the last five years has filibustered literally every bill of greater consequence than renaming a post office. This is the party that got conservatives on the Supreme Court to upend the Voting Rights Act, then literally within days began passing one law after another to make it as hard as possible for minorities, students, and anyone else likely to vote Democratic to cast their ballots. This is the party that shut down the government in its endless quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act. This is the party that sincerely believes that its opponents are attempting to destroy America, and therefore any tactics are justified in order to stop them.
You can put the start date of this procedural radicalism at the inauguration of Barack Obama, but I’d date it back to the Florida mess in the 2000 election. In case your memory of that episode has faded, the whole election came down to a series of counts and recounts in a state in which the Republican candidate’s brother was the governor and his campaign co-chair was the state’s chief election official. Throughout the weeks that followed, Republicans did things like organize a small riot to intimidate election officials into not counting ballots, and the election was ultimately decided by five members of the Supreme Court who were so shamelessly partisan that they included in their decision an instruction that it could never be used as precedent in a subsequent case. And you know what price the Republicans paid for their ruthlessness? None.
It was then that Republicans realized once and for all that norms and rules are for suckers, and at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether or not you win. That belief hasn’t changed, even as the party has grown more ideologically extreme over the last five years. You can make an argument that Democrats should have taken the high road and not changed the filibuster rule today. But if you think Republicans wouldn’t have changed the rule to benefit themselves at the first chance they got—no matter what Democrats did—then you haven’t been paying attention.

You could actually make a pretty good case that the GOP’s “procedural radicalism” began with the Clinton impeachment effort of the late 1990s, or even with the invention of “front-loaded reconciliation” by the Reagan administration—enabling the passage of four or five year’s worth of legislation via one up-or-down majority vote—in 1981. But Waldman’s right: conservatives have gotten into the habit of thinking that the values and policy goals embraced by Democrats are so self-evidently lawless and subversive that their own procedural abuses are little more than self-defense.

I’ve always said that partisans can be divided into those who disagree with the opposition but accept their legitimacy and those who would be happy as clams if they controlled a one-party state and never held another election. Conservatives are especially (though not exclusively) prone to the latter tendency because they fear popular majorities and tend to confuse their own agenda with the intentions of the Founders or with natural law or with the eternal edicts of Almighty God. Today’s radicalized conservatives have succumbed to these self-justifying tendencies to a degree that makes the old (and largely customary) procedures futile or just a sucker’s game.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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