MAJORITY AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

Now that the Senate has voted for cloture on the stimulus, I gotta say it’s striking how the goalposts have moved in terms of what the media consider a majority out of 100 senators. The dominant sense you’d get from following mainstream media coverage of the debate is that 61 Senators is the cut-off for a Senate majority, and if Obama’s initiatives don’t make it past that post he hasn’t garnered that much support (and he isn’t really that bipartisan). That’s not how I remember things being covered during the Bush administration, when the same talking heads did their talking about the filibuster as though it was an extreme measure.

Put differently, with a Republican in the White House the onus was on Democrats to justify why anything would be worth a filibuster; with a Democrat in the White House, the onus is on Democrats to scare up 61 votes.

When John Kerry talked about filibustering Sam Alito’s Supreme Court nomination (which, compared to the stimulus package, is also far-reaching in impact but most would agree was less time-sensitive to get done), that was covered as an antic from the fringe. But amidst the veneration of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the starting assumption seems to be that the very most moderate members of the Senate GOP Caucus by default will filibuster the President’s bill unless they get to rewrite it.

Is this an unfair comparison? And if not, then do we blame the media, or blame the Democrats for having lacked the parliamentary-style party discipline to better control the media narrative?

That said, I don’t think there’s much evidence that the public cares terribly much about what Nancy Pelosi rightly called “process arguments” – who’s obstructing who, who’s more bipartisan, etc. And the latest polling suggests that as with the Presidential election, the GOP may be capturing media cycles without capturing voters. Another reason to hope the Conference Committee leaves the Nelson-Snowe crew with a token accomplishment or two but otherwise churns out the bill best designed to actually stimulate the economy – whose success or failure is what voters will actually remember a year from now.

Advertisements

FUN WITH COLLECTIVE BARGAINING

Kay Steiger, guest-blogging (with Alyssa) at Matt Yglesias’ site, considers sexism in “trade professions” and after pointing out that jobs like hair dressing aren’t counted as such precisely because women do them, suggests that

What would help is first what these truck mechanics Harding points to are already doing, mentoring young women in non-traditional fields. Secondly, unions that represent those industries need to not only be free of sexism themselves, but aggressively pursue lawsuits that would discourage sexual harassment. This is happening with some larger trade unions already, but it’s not as wide as it should be.

I think this really sells short the potential for trade unions to take on discrimination. Any kind of organization with the resources can file a lawsuit – or individuals or groups can do it with no organization at all. In some cases, like the Dukes suit against Wal-Mart (largest class action suit ever in this country), that can contribute greatly to leveraging pressure on a company. But workers with a union can change the behavior of their employer in a slew of other ways. That includes negotiating with them.

Union workers can and do win binding contracts obligating companies to take on unequal opportunity by creating training programs, by collaborating with community leaders and/ or non-profits, by submitting to oversight by workers, clergy, politicians, or whoever else to judge progress, to change work rules or job descriptions that create needless barriers for people who could otherwise do the job – and in any number of other ways. And these workers can enforce these commitments, as well as the company’s legal obligation not to discriminate, through collective action and through a grievance process that moves faster, cheaper, and more accessibly than a lawsuit. The limits are defined by power on the shop floor and nationally or internationally in the industry.

As Thomas Geoghegan wrote last year in his book See You in Court,

a big change has been the way we have moved from contract to tort. For most working Americans, the kind of people I represent, this accounts for the biggest change in the way the law now impacts their lives. In the 1950s and 1960s, up to 35 percent of workers, especially men, were covered by collective bargaining agreements…In the last thirty years, there has been a loss of contract rights – to a job, a pension, or even health care – unlike that in any other developed country. It is really a new legal regime that many Americans experience as infuriating, without being able to express that fury in an appropriate way.

Now the missed opportunities within substantial chunks of the labor movement to link arms as part of movements for sexual and racial inequality in the twentieth century is not unrelated to the steep decline in union power and union membership. But those workers Kay is talking about, who have unions, have an arsenal at their disposal to attack discrimination in the workplace – not only through contract language of course, but also through the kinds of action, client pressure, media strategies, and such that play part in winning recognition and winning contracts – without depending on the prospects of a lawsuit.

DISTINGUISHING

I have to believe Frank Rich knows better than this:

Even leaving aside the Giuliani record in New York (where his judicial appointees were mostly Democrats), the more Democratic Senate likely to emerge after 2008 is a poor bet to confirm a Scalia or Alito even should a Republican president nominate one. No matter how you slice it, the Giuliani positions on abortion, gay rights and gun control remain indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s.

Look, I like to gloat as much as the next guy, but let’s not do it at the expense of reality. And Rudy Giuliani has indeed gotten more traction than many (myself included) thought he ever could, despite James Dobson et al’s significant discomfort with him. But he’s not a pro-choice candidate (he’s not a pro-gay rights or pro-gun control candidate either). He believes abortion is immoral, and he’s made it clear to anyone who’s paying attention that he’ll appoint judges who will make abortion illegal. The intermediate question of whether he has nice things to say about laws banning abortion is a detail (he’s also reversing himself on laws that make it more difficult for women to access the right to choose). While the Senate on a good day can hold back particularly crazy nominees, the only people who come their way for confirmation are the ones the president sends over. And in case you haven’t noticed, drafting strategies on how to overturn Roe isn’t enough to deny you confirmation votes from Democrats.

MONEY, IT’S A HIT

Something else about Lieberman-Lamont: Their race brings together two of the less popular archetypes in American public life: the incumbent creature of Washington and the guy with more money than God.

That’s not a coincidence.

Under the “one dollar, one vote” system undergirded by the “money is speech” regime set forth in Buckley, the ability to raise and spend money ranks high on the already frightful list of institutional advantages held by incumbents. The ability to raise money is the first mark of legitimacy in the eyes of the media and political establishments who too often serve as gatekeepers between would-be challengers and the attention of the electorate. Ostensibly liberal people pledge fealty to the doctrine that serious candidates should be able to raise serious money.

Some millionaire candidates, of course, fail spectacularly. Some spend enough of their dough to leave the incumbent at a significant spending disadvantage. Some do both.

But wherever one comes down on what we should or shouldn’t assume about millionaires’ character and suitability to represent us, the difficulty of unseating an incumbent without being one should concern us.

GO TO THE PRINCIPLES, OFFICE?

A few days ago, Matt Yglesias made the point that all the talk about how principled Joe Lieberman’s hawkish votes have been should make us think less of principled votes qua principled votes rather than more of Joe Lieberman. Ben Adler, echoing Matt’s point that how elected officials vote should concern us more than why they do, questioned why Matt sees people who call for censorship in order to get votes as any less blameworthy than the ones who call for censorship on principle.

The right, incidentally, deploys both the “Don’t worry, he doesn’t believe it” and “But those are his principles” arguments to great effect to shield its politicians from criticism, depending on which one fits best at the time. The best contemporary examples come to mind around gay rights. Every time a current or historical anecdote emerges about George W. Bush being personally other than hostile towards someone he knows is gay, Bush apologists seize on the story as proof that imputing intolerance to the man just because he pushes policies that make gay folks second-class citizens is the real intolerance. Meanwhile, when Republican judicial nominees are questioned about their records on protecting the rights of gay folks, conservatives pillory the questioners for trying to punish their principles – and being “anti-Catholic” to boot.

Matt responded to Ben that the politicians who hold bad positions on principle are more likely to push them forward in political discourse rather than simply voting for them. Call me cynical (and I’m younger than either of them), but while it’s probably the case all things being equal that politicians devote more energy to the positions closest to their hearts, all things tend not to be equal, and there are a fair number of examples out there of politicians taking stances that seem to have more to do with their sense of political reality than their sense of ethical imperative and then do whatever they can to highlight those issues and those positions.

But testing that hypothesis would require devoting more energy to divining the secret motivations of our elected officials, which only reinforces the narrative of political change as personal psychodrama rather than clash of collective actors. It reinforces the “Great (Elected) Man” theory of history to which too many progressives fall prey, in which progress comes from getting the right visionary leader into office and then keeping him there. Speculating about what Bill Clinton really thought of throwing moms in vocational training off of welfare or denying full faith and credit to same-sex couples makes for good copy and good conversation. But we’re both better equipped and more responsible to consider whether he was right to make those moves, and under what structural circumstances they might not have been as appealing.

Of course when elected officials do the right thing I’d rather think that they believe in it too (if a politician also, say, calls for an end to poverty in hopes of getting elected President, then that sure beats executing a mentally disabled man in order to get elected President). But I’ll choose which Senators to vote for based on how they’ll vote, how they’ll shift which issues capture political discourse and what the margins of that discourse are, and how they’ll affect the partisan breakdown of the body. That said, Lieberman’s people know what they’re doing with their appeal to “principle”: Voters tend to prefer candidates they perceive as acting from principle (Paul Waldman has a great discussion of this in his aptly titled book Being Right Is Not Enough). Hence the quarter of 2004 Bush voters in Wisconsin who also voted for Russ Feingold. Those amongst our elected officials with left opinions that dare not speak their names would do well to keep that in mind.

NOT A GOOD WEEK FOR JUSTICE

Robert Bork’s failed domination set a crucial precedent that a nominee whose jurisprudence endangers fundamental freedoms can and should be rejected by the Senate regardless of his personal competence. Unfortunately, Senate Democrats set a new one on Monday by stopping short of a filibuster on Sam Alito, a man who literally wrote the brief on how to kill Roe v. Wade, who has shown unwavering support for the power of the federal government to have its way with marginalized individuals, and who rejects that government’s responsibility and power to act in the service of the disenfranchised. Monday set a dangerous new precedent that when push comes to shove, the Senate will advise and consent only on whether the nominee is a sex offender or an incompetent. It’s a precedent Republicans can be depended on to take advantage of, to the real detriment of everyone who looks to an independent judiciary to safeguard their rights.

The Democrats’ ostensibly rebellious clapping after Bush said that Congress hadn’t enacted his plan to erode Social Security only emphasized the dark irony of the day: politicians who express their opposition through unauthorized clapping but not through the parliamentary avenues available to stop the confirmation of men who will leave us less free.

Want to put some real progressives into Congress? Here’s a good place to start.

NOT DOING US ANY FAVORS

Howard Dean was doing a decent job on Hardball reminding Chris Matthews that it was the White House, and not the Democratic Party, that first declared Samuel Alito’s record as a prosecutor to be relevant to the merits of his nomination. But then Matthews brought up Alito’s far-right position on spousal notification and instead of hitting out of the park the question of whether a woman should need a permission slip from her husband to decide what happens to her body, Dean got dragged into a losing fight over whether it was accurate to describe the Democrats as a “pro-choice party.” Dean shied away from the characterization, even though it describes a plurality of Americans, on the grounds that calling the party pro-choice suggests that people with the party’s position are not “pro-life.”

That would be the problem with the term “pro-life,” not the term “pro-choice.”

Dean fumbled back and forth between describing his position as one supporting a woman’s right to choose and one supporting a family’s right to choose, and insisted that the Democratic party’s position was not an “abortion rights” one. If the idea was to communicate that the party was open to abortion opponents, it’s not clear what Dean accomplished towards that end. But for those looking to the Democratic party in hopes of figuring out what it stands for, it clear what the costs are of bristling and hedging over whether you should be called “pro-choice.”