Don't Believe the Republican Cries of Vengeance

So now the Democrats have exercised the "nuclear option," which is not particularly nuclear. They've changed existing Senate rules so that judicial nominations can not be filibustered, but can pass with a majority vote. Over the next couple of days you'll hear Republicans say that this is the most horrifying power grab since the February Revolution of 1917. They will weep and beat their breasts, lamenting the death of fairness and democracy, predicting all manner of horrors, perhaps culminating in a zombie apocalypse, now that a judge nominated by the president can be confirmed with a vote of a majority of senators. But then, their grief will turn to steely determination. "You shall rue this day!", they will cry. "Revenge shall be ours!"

And that might sound like a reasonable argument for why this rule change was ill-advised. After all, as Iowa senator Chuck Grassley recently threatened, "So if the Democrats are bent on changing the rules, then I say go ahead. There are a lot more Scalias and Thomases that we'd love to put on the bench." In other words, without the restraint of the filibuster, the next time Republicans have the White House and the Senate, which will happen eventually, they'll go hog-wild, appointing the most radical conservatives they can find. But there's one big reason that argument fails: They would have done it anyway.

Let's not be naive here. The Republican party of today is not only ideologically radical but procedurally radical as well. They've taken virtually every opportunity they could to upend whatever rules and norms stood in the way of them getting what they want. Let's say that it's 2017 or 2021, and they've won the presidency and the Senate. Can anyone believe that if on this day in 2013 the Democrats decided to keep the filibuster for judicial nominations, Republicans would then do the same out of a sense of fair play? This is the party that over the last five years has filibustered literally every bill of greater consequence than renaming a post office. This is the party that got conservatives on the Supreme Court to upend the Voting Rights Act, then literally within days began passing one law after another to make it as hard as possible for minorities, students, and anyone else likely to vote Democratic to cast their ballots. This is the party that shut down the government in its endless quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act. This is the party that sincerely believes that its opponents are attempting to destroy America, and therefore any tactics are justified in order to stop them.

You can put the start date of this procedural radicalism at the inauguration of Barack Obama, but I'd date it back to the Florida mess in the 2000 election. In case your memory of that episode has faded, the whole election came down to a series of counts and recounts in a state in which the Republican candidate's brother was the governor and his campaign co-chair was the state's chief election official. Throughout the weeks that followed, Republicans did things like organize a small riot to intimidate election officials into not counting ballots, and the election was ultimately decided by five members of the Supreme Court who were so shamelessly partisan that they included in their decision an instruction that it could never be used as precedent in a subsequent case. And you know what price the Republicans paid for their ruthlessness? None.

It was then that Republicans realized once and for all that norms and rules are for suckers, and at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether or not you win. That belief hasn't changed, even as the party has grown more ideologically extreme over the last five years. You can make an argument that Democrats should have taken the high road and not changed the filibuster rule today. But if you think Republicans wouldn't have changed the rule to benefit themselves at the first chance they got—no matter what Democrats did—then you haven't been paying attention.

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