The aftermath of yesterday’s agreement to end Republican filibusters of several of President Obama’s nominees to federal posts is being widely interpreted as a severe defeat for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his caucus. After holding up several appointments, the GOP conceded the confirmation of Richard Cordray as director of the controversial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In exchange, the president withdrew his two nominees for the National Labor Relations Board that Republicans had challenged in court as being illegally put into office via bogus recess appointments, but immediately nominated replacements that will presumably not be filibustered. In exchange for this, Majority Leader Harry Reid withdrew the threat of a “nuclear option” that would stop filibusters on presidential appointments, though not judicial nominations or ordinary legislation.
Taken in sum, McConnell’s critics are probably right to say this is a victory for the Democrats and a setback for the GOP caucus. But while the deal gives Reid a rare good day as well as helping the president pack the federal apparatus as he likes, the idea that this is a turning point in the struggle between the parties that will enable the president to successfully implement his second term agenda is an exaggeration at best. As much as the Republicans have been portrayed as a menace to the government, the ability of a minority—even Senate minorities—to obstruct a determined majority is not unlimited. Holding up nominations is the political equivalent of guerrilla warfare. Such tactics can annoy and wear down the opponent, but they won’t by themselves take down a president and no one in the Republican Party thought they could. Ending this particular standoff is merely one more round in an endless conflict in which the president and his Senate allies cannot claim more than a temporary small-scale victory.
McConnell may have taken Reid to the brink in this confrontation, but, as was the case when their positions were reversed only a few years ago, beyond a certain point the smaller caucus must always give in to some extent. The confirmation of an agency head that has actually already been in place for more than a year is not a substitute for a viable legislative program or a coherent policy. Nor can it be portrayed as anything more than a tactical triumph with little or no carry-over to the rest of the president’s fading agenda.
There are two reasons why Democrats have to crow about the deal as a seminal event.
One is the obvious fact that, after being consistently stymied by a wily minority, Reid’s bluffs about the “nuclear option” at least allowed him to say that he got the better of McConnell for at least one day. Such days don’t happen very often in the Senate, as even with 55 seats and few moderates in his caucus to thwart the liberals, Reid often finds himself unable to outmaneuver his counterpart and—despite the complaints of many conservatives—rarely is able to get many Republican votes on virtually any matter of consequence.
The other reason goes to the liberal misconception about what the Republicans are doing. The president and many in his party really do believe the goal of the GOP is to literally stop the government from functioning. Thus, anytime they are able to do anything, such as getting his nominee to lead an agency Republicans would like to abolish confirmed, they tell themselves that they have thwarted a primary aim of their opponents. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding both of the Republicans and of what they hope to accomplish.
Few Republicans really thought they could hold off Cordray indefinitely anymore than they can stop Obama from filling any post if the Democrats care enough about it to make it an issue. The point of the delay was to call attention to their opposition to the agency and to lay the groundwork for attempts to change its structure—to give it a bipartisan leadership—or eventually abolish it. The same is true of the NLRB appointees who might well have been tossed out of their positions by the courts if Obama hadn’t backed down and agreed to replace them.
Reid may feel his nuclear threat about the filibuster will smooth the way for future Obama nominees, but he knows very well that if the president chooses to put forward people who are vulnerable to criticism, the GOP will be back with stalling tactics. Like momentum in baseball that depends on a team’s starting pitcher on each day, the outcome of the next battle has more to do with the identity of future appointees than it does with what happened yesterday.
More to the point, the greatest victory for the Democrats in this deal has nothing to do with Obama’s nominations and everything to do with his own dubious prospects for sitting at the majority leader’s desk in 2015. Since, as I wrote on Monday, even liberal pundit/prognosticator Nate Silver is predicting the GOP will emerge from the 2014 midterms with 50-51 seats, preserving the right to filibuster is just as important to the Democrats as it is to McConnell. The ease with which the long standoff was solved tells us as much about Reid’s desire to preserve the right to stall as it did about McConnell’s interests.