In the wake of the deal that (at least temporarily) derailed the Nuclear Option on judicial nominations, the most striking thing about the reaction has been the general satisfaction of Democrats and even much of the blogospheric Left, and the glumness of Republicans, along with angry hysterics among the leadership of the Cultural Right. Sure, there’s a heap o’ spinning going on all around, but the fury of guys like Dobson and Bauer appears genuine, and there is a general agreement across the ideological spectrum that the whole incident represents a big body blow to the presidential aspirations of Bill Frist, and perhaps to his future viability as Boss of the Senate.But in terms of unhappiness on the Right, the question remains: whose idea, exactly, was it to make this issue so central to the GOP/Religious Conservative alliance? My general assumption has been that the Nuclear Strategy was forced onto the White House and the Republican Party by a Cultural Right that’s finally demanding results from their partners on an agenda–overturning abortion rights, reversing gay rights advances, and stopping all this church-state separation crap–that depends on reshaping the Supreme Court. But in an interesting essay today, the estimable Mark Schmitt, citing an exceptionally articulate post on the conservative site redstate.org, suggests that maybe it’s the other way around: the Nuclear Option is just another cynical effort by the GOP to get the Cultural Right fully invested in their D.C. power games.So, with apologies to Aretha Franklin, the question is: Who’s zoomin’ who here?Not being privy to the internal councils of the Republican Party or the Cultural Right, I talked to a couple of smart conservatives of my acquaintance, and came away convinced that there is truth to both perspectives. The general strategy of focusing obsessively on judges was forced on the GOP by the Cultural Right. But the specific tactic of the Nuclear Option was developed by legal beagles on the Hill and in the cells of the Federalist Society as a way to placate the Cultural Right without entering into an immediate and explosive national debate on the shape of the Supreme Court, and issues like abortion, gay rights, and church-state separation.Here’s pretty much, I gather, how the thing was put together. Cultural Right leaders, growing angrier for years about the excuses being made by D.C. Republicans for failure to make progress on their agenda, finally started getting fed up after the 2004 elections created the great judicial opportunity of a second Bush term, and the largest GOP majority in the Senate since 1930. Tired of hearing that Republicans couldn’t do anything about the godless judges without 60 votes, they basically said, “Figure something out.” And that’s where the Nuclear Option came in.As fate would have it, the Schiavo fiasco occurred during the run-up to the judicial confrontation, vastly increasing the investment of the Cultural Right in this issue. And then Bill Frist decided this was his ticket to the 2008 Iowa Caucuses.So everybody rolled the dice and then crapped out. And the irony of the incident (unless, as is entirely possible, the Nuclear Option is revived and deployed later this year) is that while this may not have begun as a cynical beltway scam designed to frustrate the foot soldiers of the Right, that may be how it’s being interpreted by said foot soldiers at the moment.After all, some of them must be aware that the segment of Senate Republicans who are relieved about The Deal is not confined to the seven GOPers who formally signed it (dubbed “the Satanic Seven” by some angry talk show callers today, according to water-cooler intel from my semi-omniscient colleague The Moose). Arlen Specter and Trent Lott didn’t sign The Deal, and everybody thinks they were involved in cooking it up. How confident can the Cultural Right be that when push comes to shove in a future Supreme Court nomination fight, the White House can be trusted to send up a sure vote to overturn Roe. v. Wade, or that these slippery Senate Republicans will get that sure vote confirmed, through either conventional or nuclear weapons?In other words, this incident is going to vastly raise the stakes, and the penalty for failure, in future judicial fights, with the whole elaborately constructed, and politically and spiritually hazardous, relationship of the Cultural Right and the GOP hanging in the balance.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
While mulling some recent material from The Bulwark, I thought I’d explain something to the converted “Never Trumpers” the outlet represents, and did so at New York:
For a while now I’ve had a guilty-pleasure reading habit: The Bulwark, that semi-official outlet of Never Trumpers who view themselves as having definitively broken with the GOP thanks to their former party’s thralldom to Donald J. Trump. I share its contributors’ belief that they (the tribe usefully described by Miller as Red Dog Democrats) represent not just a self-promoting claque of elite scribblers but a real if marginal faction of the Democratic Party, having burned a lot of bridges on their way out of the GOP. Their views appear to parallel those of a significant number of suburban Republicans and independents who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020. And given the very close balance between voters of the two parties, as reflected most recently in 2020, Democrats really can’t afford to contemptuously reject any potential adherents, however alien or even repugnant they might find their backgrounds.
So it’s understandable when Bulwark co-founder Charlie Sykes expresses frustration that Democrats refuse to consider their pleas for policy concessions on grounds of holding old grudges:
“The spending. The wokeness. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I could go on …
“These are difficult times for folks on the center-right, who’ve tried to join Democrats in a loose alliance to protect the Republic from Trumpism …
“Litmus tests are applied: it’s not enough to be pro-democracy, NTers are also expected to embrace the elements of the progressive agenda — from free community college, to abortion, rent moratoriums, police funding, transgenderism, CRT, social spending, and the candidacy of Greta Thunberg for sainthood.”
Sykes fears it’s all very personal, and warns, “If you cancel moderates/conservatives for their past sins, you don’t have a coalition.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not really about the Red Dogs. Yes, I’m sure it’s been tough for them to watch Democrats largely come together around a legislative program that’s significantly more progressive than the one advanced by the Obama administration. But Democrats have been coalescing around the basics of the Build Back Better agenda for some time now. That the famously moderate Joe Biden now embraces it is a sign of how the party has slowly evolved, not some sort of betrayal or surrender to the left. And anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential primaries should have understood that there is less distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders than between Joe Biden and the Joe Biden of the 1990s.
Part of what has happened is simply a resolution of internal conflicts among Democrats that left them defensive and at times incoherent. A classic example is one that Sykes mentioned: abortion policy. For years, Democrats claimed to value reproductive rights even as they accepted significant limitations on them: e.g., the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion services, unlike any other medical services, ineligible for any sort of federal support. That amendment, along with acceptance of some largely symbolic restrictions on rare late-term abortions, and the whole “safe, legal, and rare” messaging introduced by Bill Clinton, represented concessions to a significant bloc of Democratic voters and Democratic pols who did not recognize reproductive rights at all.
That has changed over time. Anti-abortion Democratic politicians are a rare and shrinking breed, and there are now significantly fewer anti-abortion Democratic voters than there are pro-choice Republicans. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden, have made the leap into a more coherent and unified position. They aren’t going to turn back the clock to satisfy ex-Republicans, but they aren’t insisting on a “litmus test” just to annoy or exclude them, either. The same could be said for other policy tenets once beloved by a significant number of Democrats — from fiscal hawkishness to armed interventionism to an openness to “entitlement reform” — that remain attractive to the newest proto-Democrats. As for the idea that Democrats are some sort of rigid ideological cult: Come on, seriously? Look at what’s going on with the attempted enactment of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. If this is an intolerant and exclusive political party, I’d hate to see a loosey-goosey one try to function. It may just be that the issues Red Dogs fret about may lie outside the still relatively loose bounds of party unity.
This doesn’t mean Red Dogs should despair, but it may mean another painful reevaluation of priorities, recognizing that most have already had to sacrifice a lot of old allegiances and even the habitual language used to make sense of the political world. In many respects, the Never Trumpers resemble their spiritual (and in some cases biological) predecessors, the neo-conservatives. These were people who broke with the Democratic Party out of a conviction that Democratic views on national security made continued party loyalty impossible. But most of them retained many views that horrified their new Republican allies until they accepted the inevitable role of a factional minority and grew to accommodate or even share the policy positions and ideological language of the GOP, which was increasingly dominated by conservatives with their own ideological-consistency demands.
Most Red Dogs have no illusions about the party they’ve left and understand their constituencies are too small to form a third force or demand concessions from a position of strength. Most, I suppose, will get used to the strange and sometimes lurid landscape of the Donkey Party. Others will embrace the posture of the gadfly, the people of no party or coalition. But it’s really not personal. It’s just politics.