Framing the debate

framing the debate

When is a debate not a debate?

I have tuned in sporadically these past days to watch the Senate "debate" over President Bush's judicial nominees. Good grief. It is all a bit reminiscent of an amateur performance of a Greek tragedy. And I do not mean to defame the Greeks nor their drama.

There are so many things so wrong about this whole fiasco.

First off, it's not a debate. In a debate, one side makes an argument and then the other side tries to rebut what the first side said. This is not a debate. This is serial speechifying. Each side gets up and talks for its allotted hour and then the other side gets up and talks for its allotted hour, but they're not talking to each other, they're talking past each other. We often see this in young children. There may be two children in a sandbox, and both may be playing and talking, but separately. In child development lingo we call this "parallel play" — it occurs in shared space and time but is utterly unrelated.

Second, you know there really shouldn't be a debate at all when both sides use the same arguments. In this case, the Republicans delight in making their points by quoting things said by the Democrats several years ago when the Republicans held up judicial nominations by President Clinton. If these folks had any sense at all, they would all sit back and have a good laugh and say, "OK, we've proved that neither side likes it when the other side plays obstruction." But a sense of humor is sorely lacking in the halls of Congress these days.

And then there is the Greek chorus. In ancient Greek drama, there were no actors; the lead characters were called hypocrits (and you thought I was just using a figure of speech!). The chorus originally numbered twelve and their function was to narrate, fill in basic information, be the crowd for crowd scenes, etc. In Washington, the role of Chorus is being played by clusters of moderate Senators trying to resolve the impass, the "gang of twelve" — Quelle surprise! As the Senators sweep from meeting to meeting they take to the microphones to narrate the story, provide basic information, show strength in numbers, etc.

I used the description "amateur performance" not by accident. Many of the players in the Senate drama are guilty of bad acting, emoting histrionically or hysterically. The performance of Senator Rick Sanctimonitorum comes to mind. He ranged from the mien of the aggrieved parent — "It gives me no pleasure..." [This will hurt me just as much as it will hurt you!] — to near apoplexy — Democratic arguments are "the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, 'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me? How dare you bomb my city?'"

Frist, Brown, and Owen
Frist, Brown, and Owen

The proximate cause of all this hullabaloo is the re-nomination of Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen as circuit court judges. Senate Majority Leader Dr Bill Frist is championing the fight to have them confirmed. He intends to run for President in 2008 and wants to polish his bona-fides with the Right.

The frame

It's all about the frame. What each side is trying to do is put the argument into the words and images that will grab the hearts and minds of the American public. (They're certainly not talking to each other, but you have to wonder how many people are watching C-Span.)

So, if you're a Republican, you want to cast the Democrats as obstructionists who are preventing the Senate from doing the people's business. (Actually, this might be a good thing — "Do no harm!") You want to make it seem that what the Democrats are doing is wholly unprecedented (it's not). You are only claiming what's rightfully yours — majority rules and President Bush won the election. All you want, you say disingenously, is a fair up or down vote.

Nick Anderson
Nick Anderson (Click image to enlarge)

If you're a Democrat, you want to appeal to fair play and not changing the rules in the middle of the game. You want to lay the ground work for a legal challenge, as in breaking the rules to change the rules. You emphasize the need to protect minorities. You stress that the vast majority of W's nominees — 95% — have been confirmed, and want to portray the Republicans as power-hungry zealots who want absolutely everything their way.

If you're on the religious Right, you want to make it look like Democrats are attacking people of faith, and you want to encourage your followers to pray.

If you're People for the American Way, you want to save the filibuster — which totally misses the point.

How fruitful the debate is depends mightily on how the question is phrased. So all this jockeying is about trying to shape the understand that American people have of what is being argued over.

Unfortunately, no one has yet suggested the question "Should the judiciary be filled by people who are acceptable to and respected by a broad range of Americans, or should they be chosen to further the agenda of those who are currently in power?"

If only...

In a more ideal world, our politicians would think more about what is in the best interests of most Americans over the long run, and W would never have nominated these two women even once, much less twice, and the senate would never have gotten into this mess in the first place. But that's not the world we live in.

number of senators who previously served in house
Number of Senators who previously served in the House (source: NYTimes)

Our politicians are dependent for their survival in office on pleasing interest groups that have money and influence. And in an age of instantaneous and ubiquitous communications those interest groups can trumpet their demands loudly and persistently. It seems that politics is increasingly seen as a spoils system — at least it's more blatant now. And more than half the members of the current Senate previously served in the House, where simple majorities rule and compromise is less necessary. They're used to playing power politics.

Tom Toles
Tom Toles (Click image to enlarge)

In the hubris of the moment, the Republicans imagine they will be forever the majority. Of course that's not true, but they are so full of themselves they can't admit it.

I can only hope that the "gang of twelve" can cut a deal to avoid this political Armageddon. The law of unintended consequences will certainly prevail and will certainly be painful. At the same time, I hate that it may come down to a deal cut in a proverbial "smoke-filled room."