Filibusters And Partisan Whiplash

Rand Paul filibustered the nomination of John Brennan to CIA Director for over twelve hours yesterday, demanding clear answers about the federal government’s authority to target US citizens for drone strikes without a trial. It was an exciting performance that blurred the tired left/right political lines as Paul won rare praise from both Heritage and the ACLU, from both Rachel Maddow and Sarah Palin.

For the record, while I think our overseas drone strikes are unethical and counterproductive, I think malicious use of drones to assassinate non-“imminent” US citizens on US soil is completely hypothetical, and not something the Obama administration ever wants to use, just like I don’t think Obama really wants to “take all our guns away.” But, on principle, I still think the President shouldn’t have powers that he just promises not to use; that’s the fundamental reason behind our notion of a Constitution, of limited government, of being a nation ruled by laws and not by men. Even democratically-elected leaders can abuse their powers; just look at Hugo Chavez, who in many ways was the socialist that many American conservatives still think Obama actually is.

So I think this is an excellent discussion to be having, and I’m ecstatic that in a few months we have gone from hearing no questions about drone policy in the entire election campaign to leaked memos, Congressional hearings, and now 12-hour filibusters that make national news! Whatever your opinion of Paul’s particular arguments, I think this was a much-needed pro-civil-liberties event that was led by Paul and supported almost entirely by fellow Republican Senators (with the admirable exception of Ron Wyden, D-OR).

Of course, the political affiliation of last night’s speakers caused no shortage of irony:

The whiplash is fun, but it’s not really that rare. This “Bizarro World” should only surprise you if you’ve swallowed the revisionist history of the status quo, which includes the concept that “Republicans are always on the wrong side of history.” But this is only our generation’s “always at war with Eurasia,” and it’s demonstrably false.

Spielberg’s Lincoln (my thoughts here) resurrected the uncomfortable truth that the abolition of slavery was almost entirely opposed by Democrats, and almost entirely supported by Republicans, who in fact essentially became a party for that very purpose.

Now Paul’s filibuster is resurrecting the uncomfortable truth that the longest filibuster in history was by a Democrat opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1957, where 87% of the opposing votes also came from Democrats. It’s actually kind of funny how many in the media are still trying to keep that a secret as they provide context in today’s articles, either by not mentioning Strom Thurmond’s party affiliation at all

The record for the longest individual speech on the Senate floor belongs to former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

….or by actually listing Thurmond as a Republican:

The record for the longest filibuster belongs to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes beginning on Aug. 28, 1957, in opposition to civil rights legislation.

It is true that Thurmond later switched parties, but he was very much a Democrat while he filibustered the Civil Rights Act. In fact, a few years later, Democrats led by Robert Byrd filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for 57 days! (Conveniently, if you didn’t know any better, you might see that “R-S.C.” and assume that it was obviously Republicans who opposed that legislation.)

Now, you may be able to point to economic / political / demographic / game theory / public choice theory / etc explanations for these twists and turns of history – and we haven’t even opened the can about whether or not the above Acts were good laws did what they were supposed to do – but historical twists and turns they remain. Parties shift just as the electorate does. Meanwhile, humans have short memories, especially political pundits. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, but it’s already been a pretty fun ride so far.

3 thoughts on “Filibusters And Partisan Whiplash”

  1. Yeah, political parties change. They are often made of various parts. Party members are also partisan. I think this activity may be a mix of all of these.

    The Republican party used to be the progressive party. From about Roosevelt to Taft, the Republican party was the one fighting for civil rights, worker rights and environmentalism. A major split occurred when Roosevelt decided he wanted to be president again and Taft wouldn’t step aside. The progressive (Bull Moose) party didn’t win, nor did it move the Republican party to the left. Quite the opposite. It made the Republican party a pro-business party (a lesson for all you third party fans, but that is another topic).

    Of course, the Democratic party really became the progressive party until a while later, when FDR was elected. But it didn’t gave up its repressive, racist wing for a long time. It was a strange mix of a party — left wing progressives (including labor) from the North and West, along with racist, working class White folks from the South. Meanwhile, the Republican party was mixed as well. While many in the party were moderates who supported pro-business policies (but without rocking the boat) there were also anti-communist firebrands. This was probably best exemplified by the only two term Republican Presidential administration in this period: Eisenhower and Nixon.

    Then things got really messy. LBJ really upset the apple cart. Say what you will about brave Republicans who supported civil rights, but much of the legislative credit goes to the Texas Democrat. He strong armed legislation that ended tyranny that went back to the end of the civil war. In doing so, he knew he would lose the votes of Southern Democrats. Nixon, of course, was happy to take those votes. Nixon ran a Southern strategy to victory. He capitalized on the fear of change that so many felt. This element of the Republican party base still exists. The same folks who fear gays getting married are ancestors of the people (or in some cases, the same people) who didn’t want black men and white women getting married. The maps look surprisingly similar.

    Meanwhile, of course, you have the Vietnam war. The war split the Democratic progressive coalition as well. The social progressives (the Woody Guthries of the party, if you will) suddenly found themselves at odds with the labor side of the party. The TV show All in the Family did a great job of representing this. Those same characters (Archie and his son in law “Meathead”) would have voted for the same guy (a Democrat) twenty years earlier. Meathead because the (northern) Democrat pushed for civil and worker rights, Archie because it meant a better (union) job. But the war split this traditional coalition. This split continued for a long time but has largely been patched up. Partly it is because labor is so weak now that it has to find common ground with the other elements in the party. Meanwhile, the other elements in the party need the support of labor to drive turnout. This reunification of these elements of the party was best demonstrated to me at the anti-WTO rally in Seattle. I walked by a teamster, surrounded by environmentalists dressed as fish along with lots of well dressed SPU students (SPU being a Christian school, which symbolizes both the student and religious aspect to progressive causes).

    Reagan, of course, simply continued Nixon’s anti-communist fear mongering. He combined it with big increases in military spending as well as big cuts in social spending. As a result, he pretty much epitomizes the mainstream of the Republican party today. How many Republicans are willing to criticize Reagan? Most Democrats (myself included) consider his presidency to be a huge failure (on par with G. W. Bush). But Republicans love him like we love FDR.

    Of course, Bush capitalized on the 9-11 attacks to make us ignore our civil liberties for a while (and our interest in reducing spending) all in the name of safety. This represents, for the most part, the mainstream of the Republican party today.

    That’s why people are freaking out about these comments. Some of it is partisanship. I have no doubt that if a Republican president was doing what Obama was doing that lots of them would be screaming bloody murder. Many of them are, but they are afraid to say much, because they don’t want to see him weakened (and the Republican party strengthened). I don’t think it is a coincidence that these issues are being discussed a lot more after the election. The Democrats didn’t want to talk about it before the election, for fear of left wing votes going to someone else (like Nader in 2000).

    But I also think you may be on to something. The Republican party seems less cohesive than it used to be. You have moderates who are bothered by the fact that this isn’t your parents Republican party (the party of Ike). But you also have a split between Reagan Republicans (who in my mind represent the bulk of the party) and true libertarians. These folks don’t want to see a big military buildup, or a “temporary” reduction in our liberties in the name of safety. They could care less what homosexuals do. They may have personal misgivings (don’t we all) about abortion, but they don’t think the state should be heavily involved in the matter (and more importantly, they don’t think it is the biggest issue facing us). Time will tell whether these members of the party will simply be refolded into the bigger party, influence it to a major degree, or cause some split reminiscent of what the Democratic party has gone through in the last fifty years. If nothing else, it should be interesting.

    1. I also don’t think it’s a post-election coincidence. I have seen more skeptical articles about Obamacare in the media as well – or at least it seems like it. I certainly don’t want to make any predictions about how the pendulums will swing the next few years.

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