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talk about the subject of the conversation

It may be difficult for Gentle Readers to believe, but Your Humble Blogger does try not to write about subject on which I am entirely ignorant.

One of those things is the corporate media, sometimes called the mainstream media, mostly referring to the news and political broadcasts on television (both network and cable), the major newspapers, and their on-line counterparts. I read the New York Times on-line, and occasionally the Washington Post or a more local paper, and I listen to NPR for an hour or so a day, mostly Morning Edition. I also catch some headlines here and there, often through the Associated Press site or the Google News aggregator, and I read a few political blogs, and occasionally click through to the news stories that inspire posts. I don’t watch the network nightly news broadcasts, and I don’t watch any cable news or any cable shows of any kind, not having cable. I don’t watch the Sunday morning shows. Perhaps once a week, I will be in a coffeehouse, restaurant or bar that has cable news on its televisions, and although I can’t entirely turn away, I don’t come away with any memory of what was broadcast (except that time they showed Nomar Garciaparra writhing on the ground). I don’t listen to any radio news other than NPR, unless I accidentally leave on WFOS at the hour and forget to switch from their CNN news to the NPR version. So I have no real way to know what is news and what isn’t news.

I’m not saying I’m ignorant of what’s going on; my Times, my NPR and my blogs do, I think, a tolerable job of filling me in on the stuff I want to know. What I’m saying is that I have no way of knowing whether what I’m hearing is what anybody else is hearing. So every time I get the urge to say “why aren’t we talking about ...” I take a deep breath, and remind myself that I have no idea what is being talked about. I could find out, but I don’t, and that’s OK, but it leaves me out of the complaining business.

But ...

The coverage of the current conflict in the Senate about confirmation of judges is for shit. Specifically, the reporters have concentrated on the procedural details, and ignored the nominees themselves. The Democratic Party should not have allowed this to happen, and they should not allow it to continue.

The procedural issue itself doesn’t seem particularly interesting. It is very unusual for a minority party in the Senate to block nominations, although it is fairly common for a majority party to block nominations even when they don’t control a majority of votes on the nominations. Um, let me, be clearer. No, you know what, I’ll be clearer after I get to my point, which is the important part. For now, let’s just say that the Democratic Party appears to be very nearly united on a very unusual course of action.

The obvious question, then, is why? Why are the Senate Democrats willing to filibuster these nominations? The next obvious question is why isn’t the major part of the news about this asking that obvious question? You can argue all day long about precedent, custom and law, but unless you understand why the Democrats are acting like this, you can’t understand any of the rest of it. And I think that you can’t understand the Democrats without looking at the nominees. My own opinion is that the Democrats have decided on unusual tactics because Our Only President has nominated unusual nominees. Desperate times do call for desparate measures. The problem, there is that the Democrats do not seem to me to be calling attention to these nominees. They aren’t saying that these people would make bad judges, and they aren’t saying that the Republicans in the Senate would be irresponsible to confirm them. They want the right to make the objections, but they aren’t actually making those objections. It’s hard to persuade people that way.

Of course, the media aren’t asking them the right questions, but that shouldn’t matter so much. A good politician should be able to say what he wants to say, and not just react to what’s asked, particularly in an interview like that. If the Democrats want to take some power back from the Republicans, they can’t wait for reporters to ask them the right questions. Feh. I suppose I could just be wrong about this, and that all the stuff I’m not watching, reading or listening to is chock full of good stuff, but somehow I doubt it.

OK, now back to inside politics. For the sake of clarity, I’ll just call the two parties the Orange Party and the Yellow Party; it doesn’t matter, really, which is which at any point in time. Usually, in the US, there are substantial cross-over factions within each party that prevent the majority party from doing everything the leadership wants. Anyway, if the Orange Party is the majority in the Senate, and the President is from the Yellow Party, the Orange Party can usually choose to bring candidates to a full floor vote or not; in most cases, the Yellow Party will support the candidate, and there will be enough crossover votes from the Orange Party to pass the confirmation. Usually, of course, the bulk of the Orange party will support the nomination anyway; everybody understands that the President is entitled to appoint judges within certain bounds (much tighter than those for executive offices, of course). If the Orange leadership is dead set against candidate Jones, they can see if they have the votes to defeat him. They probably won’t. The crossover faction is likely to cross over, but if Jones is really unqualified, they might. If they do, they bring it to a vote, defeat it, and move on. If they don’t, they have the option of killing it in committee, rather than bringing it to the floor and voting. They could bring it to the floor and lose the vote, of course, which is what is usually done. I suppose they could bring it to the floor and then filibuster it, just to draw people’s attention, but they’d have to be pretty darned sure that they would sway the public, and then sway the crossover votes back to their side. Not terribly likely; a nominee that unpopular wouldn’t have the crossover votes in the first place, and wouldn’t have been sent by the President to a hostile Senate. No, the likeliest thing would be to kill the nomination in committee; this is in fact what the Republicans did more than sixty times under President Clinton. Let me repeat that: they killed the nomination in committee because they did not have a majority of votes to defeat it on the floor. This was a minority of Senators, within the majority party, denying a nomination.

Now, if the Yellow Party are the majority, and the President is a Yellow Man, things are naturally different. The crossover votes are likelier to come to the Yellow side, both out of respect for the Presidency and out of political expediency. So if the leaders of the Orange Party want to stop a confirmation, they have fewer options. First, if the nominee is extremely bad, they can perhaps keep all the Orange votes and split off enough Yellow votes to win. Probably not. Their only other option is to filibuster. They have to be willing to stop all other business for the duration, of course, so the filibuster itself is a bit of a ‘nuclear option’. That’s the only way a minority of Senators outside the majority party can deny a nomination. This is very rare. For one thing, the minority has to be a pretty large minority, and it has to either have very few crossover Senators or keep every one of them from crossing over in this case. For another, they have to be convinced that it’s worth it; the Yellows can choose to make the debate over the nominee the center of political attention for as long as they like. It has happened (once, I think), but it requires both an unusual political situation and an unusual nominee. I think that’s where we are now.

Still, it’s preposterous to say that a minority of Senators never has the right to block a nominee. Of course it does, and neither party is particularly shy about doing it. The question is when should a minority exercise that right, and the answer must have something to do with the nominees themselves. For more (and better), see The Decembrist, who restricts himself pretty much to writing about what he knows.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

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