Drama on the Hill: Americans shrug
As the Senate nears a showdown over filibusters, the answer to which party is winning the PR battle may be 'neither.'
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To the extent the public is listening, both parties' messages have some resonance. Republicans are hammering the idea of Democrats as obstructionists and emphasizing judicial nominees' right to a fair vote - an idea that certainly plays well with the party's base, and may appeal to increasing numbers of Americans if the fight drags on.Skip to next paragraph
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"They at least deserve an up or down vote,'' says Roy Heil, a Nashville salesman, of Bush's judicial nominees. "If they get voted down, they get voted down.'' He'd have the same attitude, he insists, if it were Republicans holding up Democratic nominees with filibusters.
But early on, at least, the Democrats seem to have a slight edge. A Time magazine/SRBI poll released a week ago found that 59 percent of respondents thought the Republicans shouldn't be able to eliminate the filibuster, while 28 percent said they should. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was closer: 32 percent opposed ending the filibuster, while 31 percent favored it.
The Democrats' themes - that the Republicans are power hungry, are trampling on long-established minority-party rights, and are trying to change the rules now that they're the ones in control - can hit home even for voters who aren't hard-core Democrats, says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. "That's the kind of message Americans react to," he says. "They don't like someone changing the rules in the middle of the game."
Indeed, those voters with a taste for Washington news and political history are often quick to point out that not long ago the Republicans were using the same filibuster-stalling tactics they now claim to abhor.
"Doesn't Strom Thurmond hold the filibuster record?" asks Jim Coopman, a Chicago accountant, relaxing outside the Intelligentsia cafe. (His Washington trivia point is accurate.) Mr. Coopman, while skeptical that this should be Washington's focus right now, is a firm believer that the filibuster should remain. "It's historic, and it gives them time to negotiate," he says. "Once the Republicans start chipping away on this, where does it end?"
A few blocks away at a bus stop, Alan Feibel is inclined to agree. The filibuster "has its place; without it, the majority would always rule," says the middle-aged salesman, as he skims over the day's Chicago Tribune. "Personally, I think it's stupid, but if it's the only course of preventing something terrible from happening, I guess we should keep it."
But those who know the filibuster's purpose, much less its history, are rare outside Washington. This is the classic sort of issue - complex and political - where voters simply line up behind their party, say some observers.
"Those who like the president, who like Tom DeLay, who like Bill Frist, are strongly with the Republicans here," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International. "Those who voted for Kerry are militantly opposed. To the degree there's a middle ground left, they're not paying attention because it doesn't have anything to do with them: It's not about gas prices or taxes or things folks in the middle generally care about."
Take Vince, a Pittsburgh writer who's a registered Republican who voted for Kerry (and who declined to give his last name). He's followed the debate and can see some merit in both sides - "sometimes I think the right is right, sometimes I think the left is right" - but the more the battle continues, the less he's interested, and the more he thinks both sides just care about the politics.
"I'm interested in broader issues," he says, citing the widening economic divide as an example. On the filibuster flap, "I've started to zone out as they've started getting into the technicalities."
• Sara B. Miller in Pittsburgh and Amy Green in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.