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The filibuster

I subscribe to a e-mail list called Politically Savvy Friends, which is irregularly published by Jon Delano, Political Analyst at Carnegie Mellon's H. John Heinz School of Public Policy. It focuses primarily on Pennsylvania politics, especially Western Pennsylvania. But it is very readable and always interesting.

On 2 June 2005 Mr Delano wrote, among other things, about the political battle in the U.S. Senate over the filibuster. As I told him when I wrote to obtain his permission to post these comments, "[Y]ou have provided what seems to me to be the only balanced and reasonable reporting I've heard, seen or read on the battle over the filibuster." I hope you agree, even though it is now a month and a half later.

Filibuster Fantasies:

As a flaming moderate, I kind of like the Gang of 14's attempt to restore balance in a deeply partisan Senate, but it remains to be seen whether the compromise that U.S. Sens. John Warner and John McCain thrashed out will stick. All along this battle has not really been over the GOP mantra of an 'up or down vote' on the president's judicial nominees. It's been about power and the traditional Senate respect for accommodation, compromise, and the minority party.

Senate Rule 5 requires a two-thirds vote (67 senators) to change the Senate rules. In a Senate divided 55-44-1, the Republican majority simply did not have the votes to amend the filibuster rule to exclude its use on judicial nominees. So White House strategists with the strong support of the three Senate leaders (U.S. Sens. Bill Frist, Mitch McConnell, and Rick Santorum) concocted an end-run around Rule 5. They would use a parliamentary gimmick to object to the use of the filibuster on a judicial nominee, have the chair (Vice President Cheney) make a ruling sustaining the objection, and then use their simple majority (or Cheney breaking a tie 50-50 vote) to confirm the procedural ruling, thereby amending the filibuster rule.

It was diabolically clever but, at the same time, highly offensive to Senate traditionalists who know that the two-thirds requirement of Rule 5 protects everyone in the long-run. Democrats immediately cried 'arrogance of power' and promised a slow-down in non-security business. The so-called nuclear option was avoided when Warner, McCain, and five other Republicans (in all, four conservatives and three liberals) joined seven Democrats to cut a deal.

So far, it appears that Bush has been the victor of the deal because a number of his judge candidates so anathema to the Democrats will be confirmed. But the true test will come when the President submits a Supreme Court nominee. Unless Bush bends over backwards to work with moderate Democratic senators, that nominee will surely be filibustered. And, at that time, the seven Republicans will be expected to hold up their end of the bargain. Will they do so? Wait and see.

Jon Delano


[As always, these views are my own and not those of any of the wonderful organizations with whom I am associated].

Reprinted with permission.


One of my favorite weekly reads is The Straight Dope. The answer to one question this week really bowled me over:

Q. ... Apparently a group of Eskimos were brought to a New York City museum in the 1930s. They were cruelly put on display so that visitors could feed them raw fish for a small charge. It gets worse. Apparently said Eskimos died (I'm not clear on how), and the proprietors had them stuffed and put back on display. Relatives in Alaska, wondering what had happened, made the journey to New York to find their family members taxidermed.... Is there—could there possibly be—any truth to this story?

A. ... [M]y steadfast assistant Bibliophage, whom I rely on to keep me abreast of developments in world literature, called my attention to Kenn Harper's Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo (1986, republished 2000). Long story (277 pages) short, the account you heard was garbled—the Eskimos, or more properly the Inuit, were from Greenland, not Alaska, and the year was 1897, not anytime in the 1930s. But in its grim essentials the story is true.

Read the whole account here. Learning about a despicable incident like this leaves me feeling like being of Western European culture and descent is an ignominious lot, at best.


A hawk to admire

War forces us, or should force us, to ask hard questions of ourselves. As a military historian, a commentator on current events and the father of a young Army officer, these are mine.

So begins an opinion piece titled "A Hawk Questions Himself as His Son Goes to War" in last Sunday's Washington Post by Eliot Cohen. The first question he asks himself is, "If you had known then [when the Iraq war was launched in 2003] what you know now would you still have been in favor of it?" His answer is a hestitating yes, and he believes that Iraq will "become [something like] a state that makes room for the various confessions and communities that constitute it, that has reasonably open and free politics, and that chooses a path to a future that could inspire other changes in the Arab Middle East." I am not so optimistic.

Things are never as simple as most political arguments make them seem. The doubts Mr Cohen expresses lead me to assume that he is a reasonable and well-intentioned human being, and not your usual right-wing pundit.

The Bush Administration did itself a disservice by resting much of its case for war on Iraq's actual possession of weapons of mass destruction. The true arguments for war reached deeper than that.

He lists some. I certainly agree with his conclusion that we failed with our policy towards Iraq in the preceding decade — "[it] fed the outrage of the jihadis with whom we are in a war that will last a generation or more" — and towards the Middle East for much longer than that — "relying on accommodating thugs and kleptocrats to maintain order...; it was the well-educated children of our client regimes who leveled the Twin Towers, after all."

He doesn't convince me that going to war was right. He does remind me, however, that we can't go back and change the fact that we did. While I am strongly tempted to advocate the immediate removal of all our troops and support as the only reasonable form of making amends for the sins of our past, I simply cannot bring myself to do so. I fear that pulling out would lead to more death, more repression and more hatred than some other alternative. I'm not quite sure what that alternative is. The turnout for Iraq's elections last January demonstrated quite clearly that there is a huge contingent of support for a liberal, free and democratic Iraq. We must do what we can to that end.

Your son is an infantry officer, shipping out soon for Iraq. How do you feel about that?

This is Mr Cohen's last question for himself and his answer reveals bitterness and anger about the conduct of this war, a bitterness and anger that I fully share.

A variety of emotions wash over me as I reflect on our Iraq war: Disbelief at the length of time it took to call an insurgency by its name. Alarm at our continuing failure to promote at wartime speed the colonels and generals who have a talent for fighting it, while also failing to sweep aside those who do not. Incredulity at seeing decorations pinned on the chests and promotions on the shoulders of senior leaders -- both civilians and military -- who had the helm when things went badly wrong. Disdain for the general who thinks Job One is simply whacking the bad guys and who, ever conscious of public relations, cannot admit that American soldiers have tortured prisoners or, in panic, killed innocent civilians. Contempt for the ghoulish glee of some who think they were right in opposing the war, and for the blithe disregard of the bungles by some who think they were right in favoring it. A desire — barely controlled — to slap the highly educated fool who, having no soldier friends or family, once explained to me that mistakes happen in all wars, and that the casualties are not really all that high and that I really shouldn't get exercised about them.

I cannot argue with the substance of his conclusion. I do not share in his expectation of the outcome. I wish I had enough faith left that I did.

There is a lot of talk these days about shaky public support for the war. That is not really the issue. Nor should cheerleading, as opposed to truth-telling, be our leaders' chief concern. If we fail in Iraq — and I don't think we will — it won't be because the American people lack heart, but because leaders and institutions have failed. Rather than fretting about support at home, let them show themselves dedicated to waging and winning a strange kind of war and describing it as it is, candidly and in detail. Then the American people will give them all the support they need. The scholar in me is not surprised when our leaders blunder, although the pundit in me is dismayed when they do. What the father in me expects from our leaders is, simply, the truth — an end to happy talk and denials of error, and a seriousness equal to that of the men and women our country sends into the fight.

Sadly, the truth is the main thing that's been missing in the governance of this great nation since before I became old enough to vote. My mother says it began when Eisenhower lied during the U-2 incident of 1960. It was certainly in full swing by the time of the War on Vietnam and the Nixon presidency.



I'm not much into posting personal gripes, but it's taken till just a few minutes ago to get that last entry posted. That's 13 days! Apparently Blogger doesn't report publishing errors due to incorrect permissions any more. I put in a request for support within the first couple of days, after checking Blogger status and looking through known issues, but only got an automated response saying they can't answer every e-mail they get. Time to start thinking about using different posting software!

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