Could filibuster reform actually happen? I’ve been dreaming of it, but I doubted the votes were there after the November losses. Maybe I was wrong to doubt.
Many years ago, shortly after Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election, I (as a first-year public policy student) was crying into my beer in the presence of the legendary Richard Neustadt. After all, according to everything we were learning about politics, Nixon was entering his second term with enormous political capital, and therefore capable (from my perspective) of doing enormous damage. Remember, this was long before anyone thought of Watergate as a real threat to the President’s power.
Neustadt was reassuring, not only in this specific case, but in general: “Nixon doesn’t understand limits. He will be destroyed.” He turned out to be right. (Neustadt usually turned out to be right.) In a later conversation, when I expressed surprise that Sam Ervin, the last surviving member of Richard Russell’s segregationist gang, should become a hero of Constitutional government, Neustadt reminded me that it was Russell, more than anyone else, who helped Douglas MacArthur “fade away.”
If I were to try to generalize, Neustadt was asserting his faith in the Madisonian system in which excess on the part of one political actor would be punished by other political actors attempting to maintain their own power.
During the Bush II era, Republicans on the Hill abandoned their institutional loyalties and took a purely partisan stance that had them supporting the most outrageous claims of executive power. After Obama’s election, they shifted quickly from monarchism to whiggery, but with the same willingness to ignore all limits to get their way. And the Democrats seemed to lack the internal discipline to strike back.
Maybe that’s changing now, and maybe Neustadt’s Madisonian faith will be vindicated yet again. But it’s important to remember that Madisonianism is not self-executing. As Franklin said, we have a republic: if we can keep it. The theocrat/plutocrat/nativist coalition now doing business as the GOP has gone unchecked for too long. Meantime, kudos to Tom Udall and his fellow “young bulls” for forcing filibuster reform onto the Senate’s agenda.
Footnote If you wanted to be cynical, you might say that “centrist” Dems and near-Dems such as Lieberman and Pryor are acting consistently; when they were potential 60th votes for legislation, they wanted a working majority of 60; now that they are potential 50th votes, they want a working majority of 50. Whatever the motivation, I’ll take it.