Is the filibuster really an effective tool for showing leadership?
Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator who became a national star for her filibuster of a Texas abortion bill, is running for governor, the Los Angeles Times reports. Speculation that she would run for the state’s executive office has been rampant since her 11-hour filibuster grabbed headlines around the country and sent her political prominence soaring. Davis is reportedly expected to make the formal announcement Oct. 3.
Earlier this week, of course, another Texan rumored to be interested in higher office made news for his own talkathon against the Affordable Care Act. Whether or not it was part of the aim of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tx.) debatable filibuster, he certainly got plenty of attention for himself by doing so. And back in March, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is considering a run for president, snared the spotlight for his 13-hour filibuster of the nomination of now-CIA Director John Brennan. The effort was an attempt to get the White House to clarify its position on using drone strikes against Americans on U.S. soil.
While each of these talkathons may be very different (Davis’s, for one, was much harder), they have one thing in common—they did a lot to raise the national profile, for better or for worse, of the leader in question. That makes sense in a media-driven political landscape. The filibuster is one of the clearest forms of political theater we have, complete with a protagonist, supporting characters and a winding, often strange, narrative for which there is no clear end. Pass the popcorn, please.
But even if the filibuster can make a politician more famous, it’s also an odd format for showcasing what we say we want in our leaders. Yes, marathon talks can show endurance, boldness and grit. They are the perfect symbol of a leader that stands up for his or her principles. To like-minded followers, they show a purity of belief and a willingness to fight the powers that be.
However, in a world where more Americans say they want leaders who compromise, rather than stick unflinching to their beliefs (a recent Gallup poll had 53 percent saying compromise was most important), the filibuster does the opposite. At its heart, it is an obstructionist tactic. It runs the real risk of being an all-about-me moment, not an example of being in it for the common good. And as Ezra Klein has pointed out, marathon remarks can annoy colleagues, look like grand-standing and make the politician appear to be a show-off.
I’m not saying Wendy Davis wouldn’t be a good governor for Texas. Her personal story lends her real authenticity and credibility, and her filibuster seemed to be not about self-promotion but about achieving an actual goal: running out the clock on the Texas legislature session so as to prevent an abortion bill from passing, albeit temporarily. She’s inspired enormous passion among her followers and seems in as good a position as anybody to make an uphill Democratic run for governor in a Republican state.
But for those other aspiring politicians who may see filibustering as an easy route to national prominence, it’s worth considering what it says about leadership. We want people with strong principles and plenty of grit, but most of us also want less obstruction, not more.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.