Washington is abuzz with talk that the Senate Republicans will deploy the so-called "nuclear option" -- in essence, violating the rules of the Senate to eliminate the possibility of mounting a filibuster against a presidential nominee -- in order to obtain the confirmation of a handful of President George W. Bush's appointments to the federal judiciary.
Senate Democrats, naturally enough, are plotting a second strike: Through various manipulations of the Senate rules, they will bring the entire legislative process to a grinding halt. And rightly so. There's no particular reason why filibusters should be banned just for nomination votes, and there's certainly no justification for doing so in a way that violates the Senate's rules. The politics of the fight that would ensue are uncertain but probably winnable for the Democrats. The substantive outcome -- no passage of any bills of any sort -- is the best liberals can hope for, given the current correlation of political forces inside the Beltway.
There is, however, a better way. Democrats should counter loose talk of going nuclear with a proposal of their own: The Senate as a whole could vote, through proper procedures, to end filibusters on votes of all kinds, allowing passage of any bill (or nominee) that can secure a majority vote. Republicans may reject the offer, of course. But if they do so, that will only strengthen the Democrats' hand politically in combating the nuclear option -- by demonstrating a fair-minded commitment to principle over short-term partisan advantage.
Alternatively, the GOP might agree. In the short term, this would produce bad results: confirmation for some bad judges. In the long run, however, eliminating the filibuster will be good for liberals, and Republicans will rue the day they decided to sacrifice a major prop of conservatism in order to put a handful of under-qualified nominees on the bench.
There is a basic asymmetry between the two big ideological forces in the United States. As the old saw goes, Americans are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. They're suspicious, in other words, of new "big government" schemes; but once such schemes are put into place, they prove quite popular. Despite dismal electoral performance over the past 25 (or, if you prefer, 40) years, liberals do a very good job defending the gains of the past. The key liberal achievements of the past -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights, environmental regulation, federal funding for education -- have all withstood repeated attack. Indeed, smart conservative politicians either avoid attacking them or, as with the Bush prescription drug and No Child Left Behind bills, embrace them. In their not-so-smart moments, conservatives launch frontal assaults (as during Newt Gingrich's attempted 1995 Medicare cuts or the current effort to privatize Social Security) and watch their public approval ratings plummet.