The Lessons and Lasting Importance of Defeating the Nuclear Option

Memo From Ralph G. Neas, president, People For the American Way Foundation

As we prepare for the start of the new Congress, I believe it’s worth a few moments to reflect on one of the progressive community’s major victories in the 109th Congress—and what Congressional Quarterly recently termed one of Senator Frist’s 'biggest defeats"—the defeat of the “nuclear option” and the preservation of the filibuster’s role in our system of checks and balances.

In fact, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently said on the Senate floor, “The nuclear option was the most important issue I have worked on in my public life, and its rejection was my proudest moment as Minority Leader.”

I also believe the defeat of the nuclear option was one of the finest moments for People For the American Way Foundation and our progressive coalition allies. It is absolutely clear to me that the nuclear option would not have been defeated without the strategic, aggressive communications and grassroots campaign we waged in the first months of the 109th Congress. The campaign to preserve the filibuster is a model of boldness, creativity, and sustained effort that we should keep in mind for the important campaigns we have ahead over the next two years.

Extraordinary Stakes

The threat by then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominations through a parliamentary dirty trick would have had an impact far beyond the controversial judicial nominees being debated at the time. It would have brazenly broken Senate rules and altered the very nature of the Senate and its role in our constitutional system of checks and balances.

Sen. Reid suggested recently that the intensive high-profile fight against Republican leaders’ threatened deployment of the nuclear option not only salvaged the filibuster and the Senate rules, but also contributed to the public’s Election Day rejection of one-party rule in Washington, D.C.

A Bold Strategy

The nuclear option would never have been defeated—and the important debate that Sen. Reid believes was crucial to public understanding of GOP leaders’ abuse of power would never have happened—without a bold step to frame the debate. While some doubted that the public could be mobilized around the Senate’s internal rules, our campaign used the power of popular culture to convince Americans that a core democratic value was at stake.

People For the American Way Foundation’s emergency campaign to save the filibuster was grounded in extensive research. We used cherished images—Mr. Smith on the Senate floor—and invoked widely shared values—America works best when no one party has absolute power—to claim the moral and political high ground. We publicized the filibuster’s role in encouraging consensus nominees rather than ideological extremists. We helped Americans see through the far right’s propaganda and understand the important place of the filibuster in our system of checks and balances. And we gave them effective ways to get involved.

The first ad, featuring “Mr. Smith” coupled with real-life common-sense Republican firefighter Ted Nonini, defined the nuclear option as a threat to noble American traditions of protecting free speech and standing up to abuse of power. A second spot featuring Nonini sharpened the message, linking the effort to eliminate the filibuster to extremist attacks on judicial independence. Then, when Sen. Frist took part in a far-right event promoting the outrageous charges that the filibuster was being used to keep Christians out of public office, we resurrected a 25-year-old ad by Norman Lear—that ad’s message about televangelists’ misuse of religion and politics had led to the founding of People For the American Way Foundation.

The Emergency Campaign to Save the Filibuster—eventually involving over 100 national and state organizations—was also built on extensive organizing in target states, with statewide coalitions and allies mobilizing public events and citizen participation efforts. People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For assisted the students who organized their own “filibuster” against the nuclear option at Princeton University, helped bring their high-profile effort to Washington, D.C., and supported students on other campuses with similar events. All this effort helped strengthen and broaden the progressive infrastructure around the country.

Monumental Impact

The progressive campaign to defeat the nuclear option generated nearly two million contacts with the Senate and moved public opinion a remarkable 20 points in the spring of 2005. A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed the public rejecting GOP leaders’ nuclear plans by 66 to 26; TIME magazine put the margin at 59-28. And CBS News released a poll showing overwhelming support (79 percent) for the principle that federal judges should be chosen in a bipartisan manner; nearly two-thirds support for the principle that it should take a Senate supermajority to confirm Supreme Court Justices; and a two-to-one plurality agreeing that eliminating the filibuster on judicial nominees would do more harm than good to our system of government. Those findings certainly had an impact on Senators weighing a vote to trash Senate principles for short-term partisan gain.

Lasting Consequences

The defeat of the nuclear option preserved the Senate’s checks and balances, prevented a disastrous precedent undermining the rules of the Senate, and kept the filibuster in place as a check against further damage to Americans’ rights and legal protections. With Democrats holding the barest majority in the Senate, and President Bush having two more years to fill real and potential vacancies on the federal courts, those are accomplishments of great consequence.

In addition, as Sen. Reid has noted, the public debate around the nuclear option highlighted for the American public the abuses of power that characterized GOP leadership in the nation’s capital, where one-party rule had undermined accountability.

Democratic Senators’ willingness—supported and encouraged by People For the American Way—to oppose some of the Bush administration’s worst judicial nominees succeeded in keeping a number of far-right ideologues off the nation’s appeals courts, to the long-term benefit of millions of Americans. The Gang of 14 agreement that derailed the nuclear option did lead to votes that put a number of extremists onto the appeals courts. And unfortunately, too many senators were unwilling to use the filibuster to prevent Samuel Alito from replacing Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court.

But one of the most important effects of the changes that the 2006 elections brought to the Senate should be the disappearance of the nuclear option as a credible threat. The Alito debate and votes took place with Sen. Frist publicly threatening to deploy the nuclear option if a successful filibuster was mounted. That threat should no longer hang over the Senate. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made clear that he is committed to upholding and preserving the rules of the Senate.

And that should provide greater incentive for President Bush to choose a different course on judicial nominations in the closing year of his term. The constitutional role of the Senate as a partner in confirming judges, not an administration rubber stamp, has been confirmed. And that is an accomplishment that we hope we will be able to celebrate for years to come.

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