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Back From the Fallout Shelter

I confess to a certain disappointment that the Senate didn’t get all the way to DEFCON 1 this week and let loose that damned nuclear option. Listening to the esteemed colleagues on C-SPAN radio all day Monday, I got so steamed up and anxious for Dear Leader Frist to finally push the big button that I’ve now sunk into post- bipartisan-agreement depression. I’m all bundled up in my asbestos suit but with nowhere to go.

I had even set my doomsday clock on no-snooze so I wouldn’t oversleep the scene the Democrats kept darkly promising me. I had laid in a stock of provisions and was already sitting upright in front of my TV monitor and patiently watching the predawn test patterns in anticipation of the Big Moment. I could already picture a cranked-up Dick Cheney wheeling into the Senate chamber, storming the podium, bitch-slapping the parliamentarian out of his way, and flashing a crooked grin while smashing down the gavel. As he illegally abolished the cumbersome filibuster, he would then lift his chin high in the air and let out a victory whoop in the original German. Better than an old pay-per-view rerun of Mike Tyson biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

The real deal, I suppose, is to put aside these personal disillusionments and calmly figure out what all this means for the broader common good. One thing for sure, under current circumstances, the nation is that much safer the longer both sides of the Senate are tied up, threatening mutual assured destruction over interpretation of the rules. I mean, when’s the last time you can remember the U.S. Congress passing some law that actually improved rather than diminished your life?

Every day that the Congress is logjammed is one more day it cannot rubber-stamp an authorization for foreign wars, that it can’t spend us deeper into the deficit trough, that it can’t strip average citizens of bankruptcy protection, that it can’t approve a free-trade agreement that exports our jobs, that it can’t green-light the noxious Real ID Act, that it can’t transfer more tax burden from the wealthy to the sweaty, and that it cannot give a thumbs-up to the nomination of some scarecrow like John Negroponte to oversee our national intelligence.

That group of 14 moderates, as they are not so accurately called, are being credited with pulling the Senate back from the brink with their 11th-hour compromise. But deep down, we all knew that the upper house would never really repeal the filibuster and that the leaders on both sides are more relieved than they are letting on. Senators of both parties think way too much of themselves to relinquish so much individual power.

They also know how to read polls. The airwaves now are full of chatter about which party won or lost this week. Fact is, both parties have more in common with each other than they do with the American people and — when pushed into a corner — are more likely to help each other survive than to do what is right for America. The public battle over the nuclear option might have looked liked the War of the Worlds to the wheezing windbags on the Senate floor, but to most Americans it came off exactly as what it was: narrow, detached, partisan politics-as-usual. The approval ratings for Congress had sunk even lower than George W. Bush’s now all-time-low popularity standing — with only about one-third of Americans saying they favored the folks on Capitol Hill. And those who said they were paying attention to the filibuster standoff were as ready to place the blame on President Bush as they were on Senate Democrats. The esteemed colleagues may be crazy, but they aren’t stupid. The back-down deal was inevitable.



In the end, most everyone (except me and the good Dr. Dobson) got what they wanted out of this. Okay, maybe add Bill Frist to the disappointed list. Bush and the Republicans got at least three, if not five or more, of their controversial nominees placed on the bench — which is what they wanted all along. The right-wing loonies didn’t get the clean sweep they prayed for, but as martyrs they get at least a couple of more lucrative direct-mail appeals out of the deal.

So do the Democratic interest groups that are now free to gin up the scare-based fund-raising bids on round two of this fight, which is certain to break out over the coming Supreme Court nominations.

The Senate Democrats, meanwhile, could boast that they forced the GOP leadership to blink. They can also claim, if they can keep a straight face, that they have preserved that antiquated anti-democratic bludgeon known as the filibuster as a weapon in their ongoing fight for, um, democracy. The deal also spared the Democrats the humiliation of figuratively getting nuked on the Senate floor.

The real lesson of this past week’s farce, the most uncomfortable one and therefore the most likely to be overlooked, is that the best way for Democrats to get better judicial nominations is to start figuring out how to win presidential elections. (With Hillary already in virtual campaign mode, I would expect no immediate breakthroughs on that front.)

As to the rest of us, well, here we are, left with our smoked-lens glasses on, staring at the TV screen with nary a mushroom cloud in the blue summer sky.


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