So much for consistency. Last week, while delivering a eulogy for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former President Obama called on Congress to pass voting rights legislation as part of Lewis’s legacy. He said “we should keep marching … And if all of this takes eliminating the [Senate] filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.”
Almost immediately, Obama’s former national security adviser Ben Rhodes went further, chiming in to call the filibuster racist:
The filibuster is a tool of structural racism. Get rid of it. It's time to stop playing by rules that work for the wrong people.
— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) July 30, 2020
As with many other things in this polarized era, Obama’s charged rhetoric overlooked both his role in supporting the filibuster and the useful role the filibuster plays in American politics, for reasons that have nothing to do with race or racism.
Obama Supported the Senate Filibuster
In the days of Jim Crow — by which I mean the 2000s — Democrats strongly supported the Senate filibuster. In 2005, amidst a showdown over confirming President George W. Bush’s nominations, the Senate Republican majority threatened to end the chamber’s filibuster rules unilaterally by using the so-called “nuclear option.”
Senate Democrats, including the newly elected Barack Obama, protested this potential rules change. His words eloquently express the problems associated with a unilateral, and partisan, exercise of power:
Everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster — if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate — then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse. I urge my Republican colleagues not to go through with changing these rules….I sense that talk of the ‘nuclear option’ is more about power than about fairness. I believe my colleagues propose this rules change because they believe they can get away with it rather than because they know it’s good for our democracy.
Obama not only endorsed the filibuster but used it, attempting (unsuccessfully) to filibuster Samuel Alito’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2006. Ten years later, Obama claimed he “regretted” his failed filibuster of Alito. The fact that Obama had already become president, however, and was trying to advance his nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made his admission seem conveniently timed at best.
Another fact Obama unmentioned? Had he voted to confirm Alito, likely blowback from the left could have derailed his attempt for the Democratic nomination, preventing him from becoming president.
In 2005, moderates in both parties compromised to avoid the “nuclear option” and kept Senate rules intact. But in 2013, despite their protestations about abolishing the filibuster eight years prior, Senate Democrats invoked the “nuclear option” they previously attacked. The change allowed all nominations, except Supreme Court vacancies, to proceed with a 51-vote majority, rather than the 60 votes previously required.
Senate Republicans have also invoked the “nuclear option,” twice. In 2017, they converted Supreme Court nominations to a 51-vote majority, allowing for the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch. Last April, they invoked the option again, to shorten the time for debate on judicial and Cabinet nominations. But neither party has altered the legislative filibuster, meaning most major bills still require 60 votes to clear the Senate.
Bipartisanship Is Racist?
The comments from Obama and Rhodes held at least a kernel of truth. Southern Democrats did use the filibuster to stall the passage of civil rights legislation — although, by mastering Senate procedure, congressional leaders overcame that filibuster in 1964 without a formal vote.
Procedural details aside, none other than Obama talked about the need to build enduring majorities to pass major legislation. In October 2007, while running for president, he thought he could establish just that consensus:
You’ve got to break out of what I call the sort of 50 plus one pattern of presidential politics which is you have nasty primaries where everybody’s disheartened and beaten up. Then you divide the country 45 percent on one side, and 45 percent on the other, and 10 percent in the middle and (unintelligible) and Florida behind. And battle it out and then maybe you eke out a victory of 50 plus one. Then you can’t govern… You know, you get Air Force One, I mean there are a lot of nice perks for being president. But you can’t, you can’t deliver on healthcare. We are not going to pass universal healthcare with a 50 plus one strategy. We’re not going to have a serious, bold energy policy of the sort I proposed yesterday unless you build a working majority.
At the time, Obama thought that he could build a new consensus in a way that a perennial politician like Hillary Clinton, his prime rival for the Democratic nomination in 2008, could not. But given his more recent comments, Obama and Rhodes now claim to consider things like building “a working majority” and working towards bipartisan consensus racist. Or perhaps they’re using the word racist as a loaded political tool rather than an honest description.
It’s About Power, Not Race
Fifteen years ago, Obama was accurate when he said invoking the “nuclear option” was “more about power than fairness.” The same principle holds as true today under a potential Biden administration and Democrat Party-controlled Senate as it did in 2005 during the Bush administration and a Republican Party-controlled Senate.
Rhodes and Obama have very little credibility to call the filibuster racist. Their theory means that Obama acted in a racist manner while serving in the Senate — a charge that seems absurd on its face. They can attempt to “play the race card” to justify their actions all they like, but a power grab remains a power grab all the same.