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They Were Against It, Before They Were For It

The Minneapolis Star Tribune's nuanced position on the filibuster

9:35 PM, May 8, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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Speaking out of both sides of one's mouth is an occupational hazard, if not an occupational necessity, for politicians seeking elective office in competitive races. It's not a pretty sight, and it supports a cynicism about democratic politics that is unbecoming. Catering to such cynicism, the leftist writer Garry Wills used to advise college audiences, "Vote for your enemy--he has no one to sell out to but you."

The political debate over the use of the Senate's filibuster rule to torpedo President Bush's judicial nominees has triggered a series of reversals and pratfalls that support the low-comedy version of democratic politics. Among the most notable examples was the April 3 profile of former Ku Klux Klan kleagle and civil rights obstructionist Robert Byrd as a cornpone constitutionalist by New York Times congressional reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg: "Master of Senate's Ways Still Parries in His Twilight." Twilight zone would be more like it, but we get the point.

In my home state of Minnesota the pratfalls have reached a kind of perfection in the naked reversals of the laughingstock-liberal Minneapolis Star Tribune and respected liberal former Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale. During the Clinton administration, no newspaper in the country converted Democratic party talking points into editorials more quickly than the Star Tribune. The tradition continues today. In an April 24 editorial, the Star Tribune lauded the filibuster and condemned Republican efforts to end it in connection with judicial nominations.

When portions of President Clinton's legislative program were threatened by the filibuster in 1993, however, the story was different. The Star Tribune's editorial page raged: "Down the drain goes President Clinton's economic stimulus package, washed away in the putrid flood of verbiage known as a filibuster. Call it a power game. Call it politics as usual. Call it reprehensible." (Call it an occasion for the enforcers on the Star Tribune's editorial board to opine in their characteristic bullying style.)

Well, that was different, of course. It was different, too, in 1994, when the Star Tribune published an editorial titled "Stall busters--Don't pull punches in anti-filibuster fight." This time, the Star Tribune hailed the efforts of a bipartisan group that sought to end the filibuster once and for all:

More than a score of distinguished Minnesotans are lending their names today to a national crusade against a worsening threat to American democracy. The threat doesn't spring from economic ills, social decay or foreign menace. It's something that's long been in the U.S. Senate's rule book--the ability of a 41-percent minority to block action with a filibuster . . . [W]hen such a group comes together with like-minded leaders from around the country, they should not be content merely to sound an alarm and seek some pledges. They should crusade for changes in Senate procedures that would prevent an obstructionist minority from delaying action indefinitely.

When we noted the Star Tribune's "that was then, this is now" approach to editorial judgment on Power Line, Jim Boyd--the deputy editor of the Star Tribune editorial page--irately denied any contradiction. Two days later, however, he wrote us: "I think you actually have caught us in a contradiction. We can change our mind . . . but in this case, we really didn't. We simply missed the precedent and, like a court, if we make such a shift, we owe readers an explanation for why we did it."

We're still waiting; the Star Tribune has yet to publish the explanation it acknowledges its readers are owed. But it has published another column condemning Republican efforts to roll back the filibuster in connection with judicial nominations. Last week the Star Tribune scraped bottom in a purported bipartisan column under the joint byline of Republican former Senator David Durenberger and Democratic party elder statesman Walter Mondale: "Preserve Senate rules, filibuster and all." (For present purposes, I'll ignore Durenberger except to say that when last seen in the Star Tribune, he endorsed John Kerry for president; that's bipartisanship a la the Star Tribune.)