The filibuster is a tool of great power. And with great power comes great responsibility.
On Thursday, in deploying what amounts to a filibuster of Chuck Hagel, GOP senators abused that power. In doing so, they've made a serious political mistake.
As a conservative, I'm fearful about the negative political consequences that will follow this action. Don't get me wrong, I'm opposed to Chuck Hagel's appointment as secretary of defense. I believe his judgments on Afghanistan and Iraq have been seriously problematic. I have real concerns over his commitment to preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. And I fear he's being used by President Obama to put a GOP face on future defense cuts.
But I also respect that Chuck Hagel is a patriot. He won two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, serving his country when many of his political contemporaries did not. And as my grandfather, a USMC veteran of the Pacific War (and die-hard Republican), put it, "He was an
infantry guy. He deserves a few stars for that."
While he might not be deserving of a yes vote, Chuck Hagel damn well deserved a vote.
And Thursday's filibuster wasn't just immoral; it was also an act of supreme political idiocy.
It will only encourage partisan retrenchment on Capitol Hill at a time when the American people desperately need a bipartisan approach to problems. It will empower those who wish to rid Congress of the filibuster, which, for all its complexities, remains a crucial guard against the tyranny of the majority.
But mainly, for Republicans, this filibuster was a pointless act of self-destruction. Nearly everyone on Capitol Hill agrees that within a couple of weeks, Chuck Hagel will be in the secretary's office at the Pentagon. This filibuster didn't change anything — except to gift Democrats a timely and almost unbelievably useful PR coup.
At the beginning of March, the sequester cuts are scheduled to kick in. Although Obama is desperate to avoid these spending reductions, he's also highly reluctant to engage in the kind of compromise (entitlement reform) that's needed to save younger generations from a future of suffocating debt. Until the Hagel debacle, Republicans had a major advantage going into these looming negotiations. Pointing to their own acquiescence to tax increases during the January fiscal cliff negotiations, the GOP could have used the sequester deadline to sell a simple, honest, and salient message to the American people: "We agreed to $600 billion in new taxes, and now we're asking for some common sense reciprocity. The president says he wants compromise, but the facts say different." While Republicans can still make this case (and frankly, the severity of the debt problem means that they must), it’s going to have a lot less of an impact on voters.
Why? Because you can be sure that the White House will play the Hagel filibuster to its advantage. "Republicans in Congress," the White House will say, "have proven that they aren't interested in common-sense solutions. Instead, they've affirmed their preference for partisan posturing above the national interest." This is hypocrisy — I believe that the president is the key obstacle to a comprehensive deal on the debt. But success in politics is like beauty in Hollywood: Perception is often more important than reality.
Addressing America's national debt is the most pivotal political issue of our time. The GOP just made that job a lot harder.