David Broder has a very astute WaPo article
today about the nuclear option
. It hits a number of points, but this particular observation stands out:
For traditionalists, the Frist effort -- the "nuclear option" -- is an assault on both of these institutional props. That explains why some Republicans with long memories and years of service, such as Indiana's Richard Lugar, a 28-year veteran, have expressed deep misgivings about the prospect of the nuclear option.
However, they are part of a distinct minority on the Republican side. Only 20 of the 55 GOP senators began their service before the Republicans secured a majority in January 1995. Except for the 18-month hiatus in 2001-02, when a party switch by Vermont's Jim Jeffords allowed Democrat Tom Daschle to become the majority leader, the other 35 Republicans have never experienced the frustrations of minority status. Nor do they know how important Senate rules have been in protecting the rights of individual senators.
Many of the newer Republican senators moved from the House of Representatives, where there are no permanent rules and where the majority party needs to give minimal consideration to the views of the minority.
That is why you find a sharp generational split among Senate Republicans on the nuclear option. John McCain, class of 1987, and Trent Lott, class of 1989, have been at the center of negotiations with Democrats about a possible compromise. Lugar, who is enough of a party loyalist that in the end he may well vote with Frist, nonetheless has said that he is "opposed to trying to eliminate filibusters, simply because I think they protect minority rights, whether they're Republicans, Democrats or other people."
It's a fair point. To characterize it more bluntly, myself, I'd observe that the grown-ups are no longer in charge.
The Republican "revolution", whether that means the gains led by Gingrich or by DeLay, has brought in a freshman and sophomore Republican majority that doesn't have the experience of the generational leaders. These aren't members who have experienced the dips and swings of power that characterize typical political life, and the convolutions of the rules of order intended to guarantee debate and institutional stability are as obtuse to them as to the average grocery clerk.
And, in DeLay's mold, many of them don't particularly care. Leadership is entirely described by winning every battle. What happens to the institutions or government as a whole, tomorrow or the next day, is ancillary at best; we have all been treated to spectacular examples of the House, in particular, so tightly controlled by a handful of leaders that actual debate has ground to a halt; the members might as well shred the legislative proposals as they receive them (when they do receive them in advance), tape down their "yay" or "nay" buttons permanently and go to Cancun; you wouldn't see much difference.
Newer legislators are also much more dependent on the goodwill of industry and the kindness of lobbyists; they can't afford to irritate powerful interest groups. Thus, they vote in lockstep with party leadership, whereas more senior members have much more leeway to stray on individual issues according to conscience. Senior members can afford the momentary pique of special interests; less entrenched members often can't.
As an aside, this is reason number 247 why term limits, the populist movement to "stop us before we vote again", are deeply misguided. For a stable and effective government, you want professional politicians, not lawyers, doctors, or car salesmen out looking for a bit of momentary prestige. The wheelings and dealings of schoolmarm Senators who have been negotiating with each other for twenty years, and the trappings of incumbency that are so often loathed come election time, have proven valuable towards maintaining a constancy in government that resists the more monstrous attempts to subvert it.
States that churn through their most senior members on the pretense that all that's needed for government are the prescribed number of warm bodies are getting similar churning of their laws, business climates, energy strategies, and so on, almost always guided by whatever particular industry groups are spending the most money at that particular moment in time.
Through constant anti-government rhetoric, we've been losing that constancy even on a national level, first in the House, and now in the Senate. Government by individuals who were elected based on their strong hatred of government, as it turns out, wasn't such a good idea.
The other surprising part about all of this, however, is just how effective the newer and more deeply, viciously partisan generation has been in getting the more moderate Republican elders to buckle under even in circumstances where the elders are very clearly aware of the dangerous path they're going down. Voinovich's dramatic speech outlining the catastrophe of John Bolton as a representative of American interests -- followed immediately by a thunderous cave-in of those principles under the new mantra of "it's really not up to me to decide these things", is one of the recent highlights. More recent still is Hagel's obvious cave to the nuclear option, which to hear him himself tell it is against "the interest of the country". If these moderate statesmen of the Senate have been losing their influence -- which they have -- it might be in part because of their own unwillingness to provide anything but paper-thin leadership.