The Right’s Continuing Outrage Over the “Gang of 14”

It has been nearly three years since fourteen senators – seven Democrats and seven Republicans – hammered out a deal that preserved the use of the filibuster on judicial nominees and, judging by an article in the New York Times, the Right still hasn’t gotten over it:

Back in 2005, Senator John McCain of Arizona and fellow members of the so-called Gang of 14 were hailed as heroes in some quarters when they fashioned an unusual pact that averted a Senate vote on banning filibusters against judicial nominees.

Now Mr. McCain’s central role in that effort, which cleared the way for confirmation of some conservative jurists, is cited as one reason for lingering distrust of him among many conservatives. The power to appoint federal judges is seen as one of the most crucial presidential roles by many on the right, and some continue to believe the agreement undermined the Republican leadership at the precise moment the party was about to eliminate the ability to use procedural tactics to block judges.

James C. Dobson, an influential conservative leader, noted Mr. McCain’s role in the bipartisan Gang of 14 in his announcement that he could not support the lawmaker as the Republican nominee under any circumstances. Other conservatives still resent it as well.

“When people hear he was part of the Gang of 14, it leaves a bad taste in their mouths,” said Phil Burress, president of the Citizens for Community Values, based in Ohio.

Considering that, thanks to the deal, President Bush managed to seat right-wing ideologues such as William Pryor, Janice Rogers Brown, and Priscilla Owen on the federal bench – not to mention John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court – a lot of people have been wondering just what the Right is so upset about and why they insist on holding McCain’s participation against him.  

In short, they were outraged, and seemingly continue to be outraged, that Senate Republicans failed to take advantage of an opportunity to jettison tradition in order to squash Democrats beneath their feet. 

The “nuclear option” — as the proposed attempt to do away with the filibuster was known despite Republican attempts to rechristen it the “constitutional option” — was first floated back in 2003 in response to filibusters against Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen.    Immediately, the Right rallied behind the idea, with groups like Committee for Justice, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Center for Reclaiming America, Concerned Women for America, and the American Center for Law and Justice all serving as vocal advocates. 

When, two years later, their attempts to destroy the filibuster and squash the Democrats were seemingly thwarted by the “Gang of 14,” the Right was apoplectic, as we chronicled in the days that followed the announcement:

When the agreement was announced, [Jan] LaRue belittled the Republicans who had agreed to it as “seven dwarves [who] have handed the filibuster key to the Supreme Court Castle with [sic] the Democrats.”

In keeping with his recent tirades about what the filibuster battle means to the right wing, Focus on the Family Action Chairman Dr. James Dobson, blasted the arrangement as a “complete betrayal.” “This Senate agreement represents a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans and a great victory for united Democrats,” he said as he warned that “voters will remember both Democrats and Republicans who betrayed their trust.”

Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition said the agreement was akin to forfeiting “the World Series … for some dumb reason” and berated the Republicans for failing to “have the backbone and the fortitude to stand up for the fact that we are the majority.”

Rick Scarborough, Chairman of the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration, likewise voiced his outrage over this “betrayal of democracy, decency and fairness” and called the deal a “complete capitulation.” Scarborough pledged that the JCCCR will “re-double our efforts to eliminate the permanent filibuster – now and in the future.”

In an e-mail update sent to supporters later in the day, Scarborough declared that “I have rarely been more sickened than I am at this moment.” He went on to state that “this devil’s bargain must not be allowed to stand and I give you my word we are expressing our outrage” and urged his supports to “let Senators know that you deplore this move and are determined to see the filibuster ended now or latter [sic].”

The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins likewise blasted the “ignoble judicial compromise” and likened the seven Republican Senators who signed the deal to Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister known mainly for appeasing Adolf Hitler. Later in the evening, when Perkins appeared on “Hardball,” he made it clear that he considered Sen. John McCain to have “betrayed the majority leader and I think he betrayed the conservatives that gave the Senate expanded majorities.” He went on to complain that the seven Republicans who had agreed to the deal “stole defeat out of the mouth of victory.”

Pat Buchanan echoed the World War II surrender theme, though it was unclear who among the US Senators Pat Buchanan was comparing to Hitler and/or Mussolini when he characterized the agreement to table the nuclear option as “a Munich; a Munich of the Republican Party” on Don Imus’ “Imus in the Morning” show the day after the agreement had been reached.

On Dr. James Dobson’s Monday morning radio program, before the agreement was announced, Dobson and his guests made it clear that they would not support any sort of compromise because this was a must-win battle for the Right. Dobson said that the fight over the filibuster was “the most important issue that has come before the Senate since World War II.” He saw it as “a battle royal [about] everything we care about, and I think a collision between right and wrong and good and evil is all wrapped up in the outcome of this particular issue.”

One of Dobson’s guests, American Values’ Gary Bauer, likewise opposed any potential compromise on the issue, warning that “any effort to have a so-called ‘compromise’ would undercut our attempt to get this country’s culture back on the right road.” Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s VP of Government and Public Policy, echoed the “no compromise” theme: [T]here really is no compromise that is acceptable. You either preserve the filibuster for use against good Supreme Court nominees … or you end this unconscionable, unprecedented use of the filibuster that the Democrats have been employing.”

The Right was fully invested in seeing the Senate Republicans’ go through with the “nuclear option,” as evidenced by Paul Weyrich’s exhortation to carry it out:

[Senate Republicans will hear] screams of anguish from the minority, echoed by the national media. But who cares? [They need to] stop the whining about how powerless they are and at last use their power for the good of this country.

For the Right, the “nuclear option” was less about its real long-term impact and more about exploitation of power and sticking it to the Democrats – and they’ve never forgiven McCain and other members of the “Gang of 14” for denying them the thrill of that power play.