The Gang of Fourteen
These are dark times, especially if you are part of the loose community of people who by virtue of nature and/or nurture, are of a mediative persuasion.
Our country is on fire and politics is starkly divorced from governance. Statesmanship and diplomacy have gone missing. Single-issue extremists, secular and religious wing nuts, and people who prefer to do their politics through lawyering, wheedling, and spin-peddling have monopolized the national political scene.
The great games of our time are dutifully reported and egged on by the media. Editors and reporters love the constant interplay of towel snapping, eye poking, face-slapping, nose-grabbing, ear-pulling, and back-stabbing. Increasingly, we accept this as the new normal, the way people in power are supposed to work. Every once in a while it is good to remember glimmers of something different.
Late in 2004, what feels like a political century ago, a potentially paralyzing political showdown developed in the US Congress. Word filtered around the capitol that conservative Republicans were girding for a battle aimed at keeping Democrats from blocking President Bush’s judicial nominations to America’s highest courts. Judicial appointments are one of the greatest perks a president has, but the advice and consent of the Senate is required. Democrats threatened to filibuster. Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), Senate Majority Leader and a close ally of President Bush, hinted that he might use an unusual parliamentary maneuver that the Democrats called “the nuclear option” to put an end to filibusters on all future judicial nominees. The Democrats, led by Harry M. Reid (D-Nevada), fought back.
If the filibuster was removed as a tool, Democrats threatened to use other procedural tactics at their disposal to effectively tie up the Republicans as they tried to implement their agenda. Observers, pundits, and scholars noted that exercising the “nuclear option” would set a precedent negating the long tradition of protecting dissenting views in the Congress. With Frist and Reid each accusing the other of political disingenuousness, and a vote pending on the first of Bush’s judicial nominations, a third force suddenly emerged. Fourteen moderate Republicans and Democrats, seven from each party co-led by Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska), banded together to try to find a solution to the standoff. Like other successful bipartisan coalition-building efforts, The Gang of Fourteen was an excellent example of the intersection between big “P” and small “p” politics.
Big “P” politics is all about Left and Right, Republican and Democrat, Conservative and Liberal, and all of the shades in between. Big “P” tends to take place inside the beltway and on the roads and flight paths that lead through state capitols, county seats, and gubernatorial and mayoral chambers. It is the stuff covered in Foreign Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Meet the Press, and The O’Reilly Factor. Big “P” is what the pundits, bloviators, and gasbags talk about all day on the Sunday afternoon talk shows.
In contrast, there is small “p” politics which can be just as full of noise, froth, and goofiness as the big stuff but which tends to be more microscopic and closer at hand. It is, above all else, accessible. Everyday people like us can touch it, get involved in it, and see with greater clarity the relationship between cause and effect. It is less about the bully-pulpit pronouncements of reputedly charismatic leaders or the steady to-and-fro shifts of ambitious political climbers who want to replace them.
Instead, small “p” thrives in the interstitial spaces of our political system, inside company offices, schools, community centers, civic clubs, church rectories, and soccer teams. It happens when more ordinary, less exalted people try to do the right thing but disagree strenuously on what exactly that “right” thing is.
It too is vulnerable to what my friend Kem Lowry calls “individual psycho-pathologies masquerading as social issues.” On the upside, it also happens when people of reasonable intelligence and modest amounts of good will interact with each other, discover common interests, and try and sort matters out. In this regard, big “P” and small “p” are similar. Our best senators, diplomats, and presidents do small “p” politics very well. So do our best basketball coaches, restaurant managers, nurses, sanitation engineers, bank tellers, and beat cops. You don’t have to be an elected or appointed big shot to try to tame tough problems or unite people. What you need are some skills, tools, a bit of courage, and a good roadmap.
After arduous deliberations, the Republicans inside the Gang of Fourteen agreed to back off their threat to prohibit filibusters on judicial nominees. In turn, the Gang’s Democrats agreed to let some judicial appointments move forward, reserving any future use of a filibuster to “extraordinary circumstances.” Nobody quite defined what that means, but it solved the immediate problem. Never underestimate the power of a new and better expressed ambiguity to resolve the problem of old ones.
The bipartisan revolt was revolutionary, at least in the context of a Congress and Executive Branch dominated by one party. The Gang of Fourteen created a breakthrough and averted a serious meltdown of Congressional business. More importantly, it created a new political center on an ongoing issue and demonstrated how careful, across-the-aisle discussions led by politically astute men and women with courage could yield results important for the country. It was centrism at its best.
Not everyone was happy with the Gang of Fourteen. Frist made perfunctory praising comments but seemed to have invested much of his own political capital in the fight. Conservative Senator Lindsey Graham (R–South Carolina) said he expected political fallout from joining the Gang of Fourteen. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), normally key players in bipartisan coalition building, did not support the negotiations. Nonetheless, hands came off the political nuclear trigger and a ceasefire was put in place.
The world gets better when improbable allies find agreement.