The Senate can help Republicans choose their presidential nominee

September 27, 2013

In this political environment, we should identify and welcome opportunities for bipartisan progress whenever we see them. One such opportunity has arrived: filibuster reform. For the last four years, a cadre of Senate Democrats has advocated for filibuster reform that leaves the current vote threshold of 3/5 of the Senate in place, but makes it easier to wait out a filibuster. In this way, filibustering might evolve from an automatic supermajority threshold to a real competition to see which side can hold out the longest. In other words, more like the 1930s Senate of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

screenshot from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," 1939
screenshot from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” 1939

Who else likes talking filibusters? Senate Republicans. Specifically, Republican senators running for President and the conservative activists and voters looking for the candidate who will do anything to show how conservative he is. Last March, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) filibustered for 13 hours and shot up in 2016 primary polls and won the CPAC straw poll a week later.

Now, Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has shot to the head of the GOP field in the wake of his not-really-a-filibuster this week. A Public Policy Polling poll from this week has Cruz leading Rand Paul 20 percent to 17 percent (no margin of error or sample size reported, but this is probably within the margin). While Cruz’s stunt may have cost him goodwill among his fellow Republicans and his kill-Obamacare-or-shutdown lost a key 79-19 vote today, it gained him recognition among Republicans as a leader of the party. PPP reports that “Cruz is now viewed more broadly as the leader of the Republican Party” when compared to Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

Screenshot courtesy of C-SPAN 2
Screenshot courtesy of C-SPAN 2

So this one’s easy: Democrats want more actual filibustering, and Republicans reap huge individual gains by  taking the floor. Democratic reformers and ambitious Republicans should team up to make all filibusters “live” events. Together they can form a broad coalition to change the rules of the Senate.

Ideally, the GOP could scrap its entire presidential primary system–consistent with an RNC report calling for fewer debates and a shorter primary calendar–in favor of a trial-by-endurance system of concurrent filibusters on the Senate floor. That is, pick a single topic, like “should we nationalize the oil industry?” and let all the candidates start filibustering at the same time. Last candidate standing gets the nomination.

On the other hand, perhaps the ability of senators to gain traction in the presidential race by filibustering on the Senate floor just exacerbates the challenge for Republican party leaders who are trying to steer the selection process toward the most marketable candidate possible.

Gregory Koger is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami. He specializes in Congress, political parties, and elections. He also blogs at Mischief of Faction.
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David Karol · September 27, 2013