Pols Filibuster Voters' Will

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., with Bush judicial nominees Janice Rogers Brown, center, and Priscilla Owen on Capitol Hill Tuesday, May 17, 2005.
This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

"Pollyanna Silverlining reporting from the U.S. Senate, where a few renegade Democrats and Republicans have forged an extraordinary compromise that will end the Battle of the Filibuster and all the bitter political wrangling that has gone with it. While the loyalist mainstreams of both parties continue a last ditch effort to keep the fight over the 'nuclear option' alive so they can keep scoring short-term partisan gotchas, it appears that a few sensible moderates in each party have thwarted that with this new deal. The Republicans in the deal will vote against a rules change that would put an end to filibusters that block judicial nominees, while the Democrats will buck their party and allow controversial Bush nominees to come up for votes on the Senate floor. Tiffany, Ethan, back to you in the studio."

And then I woke up.

But maybe the dream wasn't totally hallucinatory.

At this writing Republican John McCain and Democrat Ben Nelson are trying to broker just such a deal. Stranger things have happened. Really.

If this did happen, it would be one the most significant legislative accomplishments of recent years. And not just because it would break the self-inflicted gridlock of Congress on a high profile issue and frustrate the gridlock enablers - the special interest groups and the fundraisers, direct mail artists, phone bank hucksters and Astroturf organizers who need a contentious fight to make a buck. No, the bigger triumph would be that finally - if fleetingly - the legislature would reflect the common sense of an electorate that is far less polarized and partisan than the political elite.

Political scientists used to be able to explain most elections and political contests by a model developed by Anthony Downs in 1957 in a fancy sounding book called "An Economic Theory of Democracy" that really made a very simple argument: the politician who comes closest to the center wins.

Politicians aren't obeying that model anymore for complicated reasons that mostly involve money, this being America. In many cases, it makes career sense for politicians to go for the fringe and not the center.

But The Voters do seem to be obeying the Downs model in that they are not as extreme and as partisan as professional politicians and highly politicized civilians. Despite all the talk about culture war and two Americas, scholars are accumulating a growing mound of evidence that on basic issues and values, a stable, though obscured American consensus endures. Wayne Baker's "America's Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception" and "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America" by Morris Fiorina are two important recent examples.

Alright, so back to the filibuster. The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press put out a poll this week that shows that only 14 percent of those polled are following the filibuster flap closely, that over a third don't know which side they favor and majorities see the merits of arguments for and against the use of filibusters. So this is not an issue that voters are engaged in or have strong partisan feelings about. Yet the pols are going ballistic - I mean nuclear.

So we should not be surprised that 64 percent think the parties are "bickering more than usual." When Pew asked the same question in the May before 9/11, the percent was 41, which then went down to 31 the following year. Not only have professional politicians squandered the good will of the post-9/11 period, they are seen as more petulant than in the months after the controversial 2000 election.

And ironically, they're bickering because they think they're sucking up to the voters! They've gotten so partisan and pugnacious that they've even lost their most cherished skill: the capacity to pander well.

"Tiffany, Ethan - late breaking news. Senate leaders have given up trying to block the compromise and the logjam on judges has been broken. I'm Pollyanna Silverlining, for Sweet Dream News."

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer