TPM Reader JO keeps it real …
Your question about whether anyone had heard the phrase “up or down vote on a jobs bill” struck a chord. It’s not just the jobs bill. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard a Democrat use the phrase “up or down vote” on any bill held up by Republicans in the Senate. This is a shame, since a demand for an “up or down vote” is a far better message than the self-defeating complaints about “Republican obstructionism” we keep hearing.
Take me for an example. I’m a fairly liberal Democrat, and during the Bush years, all I wanted from the Democrats in Congress was to obstruct George Bush’s agenda. Thus, with the shoe on the other foot, “obstruction” was exactly what I demanded from my party. I am sure that most Republicans are similarly pulling for their politicians to obstruct Obama’s agenda. “Obstruction”, in other words, is hardly a dirty word in American politics. It’s shorthand for “political hardball”.
That said, during the Roberts and Alito Supreme Court nominations, even I felt a twinge of sympathy for the “up or down vote” argument that Republicans pounded away with. Similarly, the phrase “elections have consequences” resonated, at least a little. After all, America re-elected George Bush, and the nominations of Roberts and Alito was a classic case of reaping what you sow. I might not have liked it, but fair is fair.
The current Democratic obsession with the phrase “Republican obstructionism” is a classic case of beltway Democrats failing to understand the electorate. Something like 25% (or less) of Americans know that 60 votes are necessary to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. However, when Americans are asked about specific votes, polls show that strong majorities almost always answer in favor of a holding a vote when asked questions like, “should John Roberts receive an up or down vote?”
This isn’t rocket science. Most Americans have no idea what a filibuster is, but if they asked whether a matter before the Senate should receive an “up or down vote”, Americans nearly always says “yes”. This answer cuts across party lines, even among those who oppose the issue being voted on. Conversely, when the public hears about “Republican obstructionism”, even most liberals shrug their shoulders and mutter, “well, of course Republicans are obstructing the Democratic agenda. Republicans disagree with the Democratic agenda.”
My point is this: Democrats can talk until they are blue in the face about how “unprecedented” this wave of Republican filibusters in historical terms, and most Americans won’t have any idea what they are talking about. If Democrats demanded an “up or down vote” on individual issues because “elections have consequences”, however, Dems would be appealing to Americans’ basic sense of fairness while breaking through the beltway spin about needing a “super majority” to pass bills in the Senate. (After all, the notion that Democrats need a “super majority” fundamentally confuses what actually happens with a filibuster, during which a small number of senators prevents the full senate from even voting on a bill that would otherwise pass.)
When the concept of a filibuster is properly framed as a procedural roadblock employed by a small number of malcontent senators to prevent their colleagues - who won the last election - from voting, the public strongly disapproves. Why? Because even partisans agree that our democratic system should not permit a minority from grinding the government to a halt.
If I had to guess, senate Democrats (whose cowardice knows no bounds) are afraid to adopt the “up or down vote” attack is because they worry they will be called hypocrites when they are back in the minority and try to filibuster something. But the answer to this is simple: just look at the Republicans. Last I checked, the Republican senators who demanded an “up or down vote” on Roberts and Alito seem to be avoiding the “hypocrisy” label. Moreover, no matter how much Obama struggles, it’s hard to imagine the Republicans fielding a decent presidential candidate in 2012. In other words, even if the Democrats do find themselves in the minority some time in the next six years, the need to filibuster will be greatly reduced as long as a Democrat holds the White House, where the more socially accepted form of obstructionism - the veto pen - will protect cowardly Dems from having to filibuster most Republican bills.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.