What Ted Cruz and Wendy Davis have in common

September 25, 2013

We seem to have moved on from talking about Ted Cruz's filibuster to meta-talking about Ted Cruz's filibuster. Dylan Byers, channeling a popular complaint of conservatives on Twitter, wonders why the media gave Texas Democrat Wendy Davis's filibuster more (and more favorable) attention than Ted Cruz's effort. Steve Benen responds that Davis's filibuster was more both more consequential and unexpected than Cruz's filibuster.

He doesn't know. (AP Photo/Senate TV)
He doesn't know. (AP Photo/Senate TV)

But what's interesting about the Davis and Cruz comparison is how much they have in common. Both of them got overwhelming amounts of media attention for their filibusters. They're both backbench legislators who made themselves the center of American politics for at least 24 hours. The same is true of Rand Paul's filibuster in March. Bernie Sanders didn't get nearly as much attention for his 2010 filibuster as Cruz, Paul and Davis -- a fact that complicates the "liberal media" narrative here -- but he definitely made some headlines, and he even got a book deal out of it.

All of which is to say that the amount of media attention a politician can expect for a filibuster -- or at least a long speech -- is far beyond the amount of media attention they can expect for staying quiet. So why don't more of them filibuster? I can think of at least three reasons:

1) Filibustering is hard and even risky. Say what you will about the "Green Eggs and Ham" reading. Ted Cruz held the floor for 22 hours. He had some help from friendly colleagues. But it was, for the most part, him up there. That's physically taxing. It takes a lot of preparation. It comes with a real risk of saying something stupid and embarrassing after you've been on your feet and talking for more than 20 hours.

2) Talking filibusters are usually unnecessary. The Davis filibuster was an extraordinary political event because it actually stopped a law from passing. The Texas Legislature was nearing the end of its legislative session, and by holding the floor, Davis managed to run out the clock such that the bill couldn't pass. The effect of this was limited -- Republicans ultimately called another session and passed it -- but her filibuster had a true strategic purpose.

Paul, Cruz and Sanders were filibustering to grab headlines, not block a bill. The way the Senate works now, you don't actually need to talk to block a bill. You just need to threaten to talk. If you have the votes to win the filibuster, the majority usually won't bring the bill to the floor at all -- after all, it's just wasting their time -- and so there's no room or reason for the minority to talk.

3) Talking filibusters can annoy your colleagues and, ultimately, be counterproductive. After all, it's their time you're wasting. It's their efforts you're spending dozens of hours blasting. And, at the end of the day, nobody likes a show-off. Doing a bunch of grandstanding is a quick way to lose friends in the famously clubby Senate, and losing friends makes it harder for you to get anything done.

There are certainly reasons I'm not thinking of. Still, if they explain why every senator isn't constantly launching filibusters, it doesn't explain why more of them aren't launching filibusters -- especially now that Davis, Cruz and Paul have had such success increasing their public profiles by filibustering. Of course, the irony is that as soon as talking filibusters proliferate, the novelty will wear off and the media will stop covering them.

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Brad Plumer | September 25, 2013