ThinkProgress and a few other of the professional Left’s less literate vanity projects have had a great time in the last couple of days pretending that I told Gretchen Carlson that filibuster reform would lead inexorably to a military coup. I clearly said no such thing. What I did say, however, was twofold: First, that on Thursday President Obama gave a generalized speech against both checks and balances and minority rights per se; and, second, that it is tough to see a limiting principle in the president’s attitude toward power.
Lest the dull and the deliberately obtuse fall into further paroxysms of folly, I will state this clearly here: The Nuclear Option is of course significantly less deleterious to a free country than is a military coup. And Obama is not going to perform a military coup. Still, this is irrelevant to the principle. There are reasonable arguments against the filibuster being used to delay judicial nominees, and indeed against the filibuster in general. But Obama didn’t make one. Instead, he said that if the majority wants something it should get it; that the business of the American people was more important than gridlock; and that the system was preventing what he regards as self-evidently beneficial laws. Something, he said, had to be done.
This was a marked change from 2005. Back then, when the Republican Party suggested the Nuclear Option — i.e. breaking the rules to change the rules — Obama didn’t just say that he thought this violated the spirit of the Senate or brought to a harsh close a longstanding gentlemen’s agreement, but that it would be illegal — even unconstitutional. He reminded the Senate that he was once a constitutional law professor, and opined that there was nothing in the Constitution to allow such a move. What a difference eight years make. Now that he has found himself disadvantaged by the rules he is openly advocating for the Senate to do something he once contended violated the highest law in the land. In the interim, of course, he has never intimated that he has changed his mind on the legality of the Nuclear Option. This is a power play, pure and simple.
Clearly, changing the rules of the Senate by breaking them is a relatively minor — albeit not negligible — measure. But make no mistake: this is the logic of the military coup. That is to say that once the case for acting illegally has been made, anything can be appended. Such attitudes have no place in a republic, and should not be indulged by anyone who values strong institutions and the rule of law. ThinkProgress and its fatuous relatives can print all the pictures of tanks they wish, but the simple fact will remain that rules are rules, — however big or small — and that breaking them in the name of expedience should not be regarded as acceptable merely because the consequences are not fatal. As much as anything, constitutional government is a willingness of the heart. How capricious is our president’s.