Early Returns

Steve Bannon's Obsession With the Rules

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Nothing to lose.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

What does Steve Bannon really care about? He says it's Senate procedure, of all things. Bloomberg's Jennifer Jacobs and Bill Allison report:

Bannon plans to support as many as 15 Republican Senate candidates in 2018, including several challengers to incumbents, the people said. He’ll support only candidates who agree to two conditions: They will vote against McConnell as majority leader, and they will vote to end senators’ ability to block legislation by filibustering.

This is somewhere between odd and completely loopy. 

So why is Bannon so consumed with a Senate where simple majorities rule?

I'm not going to worry about hypocrisy over rules, something both parties share. Normal hypocrisy -- in which the parties support whatever rules help them at the time -- is relatively healthy, as these things go. Each party gets to come up with, as needed, reasons some particular rule is essential to democratic government or a massive abuse of democratic government. No one is harmed, and both parties get to think through the reasons that are consistent (more or less) with their general ideas about government. In other words: Over time, both parties get to think of the advantages of the rules as they are, and they also get to think of why they create problems. I like that. 

But while normal, healthy hypocrisy explains why practically all Republicans hate the filibuster these days and practically all Democrats support it, it doesn't explain why someone might base an entire campaign around the idea.

I can think of two possible reasons for what Bannon's up to. 

One is that pure procedural goals have one big advantage over substantive policy goals: Opinions on procedure are almost purely partisan. Indeed, it's a stretch to suppose that most voters or even most party actors have any real opinion about Senate procedure. Why should they? Legislative procedure is obscure, and for most people not very interesting. That means it's very, very easy for most people to fall in with whatever their party's current line might be -- and, even better, no organized party groups are going to care about fighting back on the issue, which might not be the case on policy areas such as trade or immigration. 

So while Bannon has previously trumpeted policy areas that split the Republican Party, he's now jumping on something where he can be in the overwhelming majority. The only people who have a clear self-interest in retaining the filibuster -- at least, the only people who realize they have a self-interest -- are incumbent senators.  

The other reason is an old Newt Gingrich ploy: Select something to run on that's almost impossible to achieve. Gingrich did that by supporting various constitutional amendments, which, by the rules of the game, are much harder to pass than simple legislation. Filibusters are at least somewhat similar, given that incumbent senators are both very reluctant to give up the individual influence given to them by Senate rules and the only people who get to vote on it. One might think that choosing something to run on that can't actually be done would be a foolish political strategy. But it does have some obvious appeal for a party that has little agreement on, expertise in, or even interest in mastering the complexities of public policy. 

After all, fixing the tax code or the health-care system or income inequality is incredibly difficult. Running on something sure to be blocked might seem very enticing as an alternative ... especially for someone who isn't running for office and therefore doesn't have to deal with constituents who don't like the tax code or don't have health care or have stagnant wages. 

1. Chad Bown at the Monkey Cage on the possibility of a new round of protectionism from Trump.

2. Sofia Perez at the Monkey Cage on what's happening in Catalonia.

3. Nice one from my Bloomberg View colleague Stephen Mihm on Trump, Mitch McConnell, John Tyler and Henry Clay

4. Greg Sargent on the Bob Corker story.

5. Ed Kilgore on very old senators

6. And Jonathan Cohn on the administration's next steps to sabotage health insurance markets

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