FISTING FRIST? Did the Dems really win?

Blessed are the dealmakers, for they shall inherit the Senate. If that doesn't sound quite biblical to you, you are not alone. Since the dramatic, last-minute bipartisan deal on Monday night, May 23, involving seven senators from each side of the aisle, to avoid a "nuclear option" showdown over Democratic intentions to filibuster seven of Bush's hard-right judicial nominees, the Christian right has not exactly been turning the other cheek.

Head theocrat James Dobson from Focus on the Family, who has been pulling Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's marionette strings for months, issued a statement on Monday night in which he fulminated against "the complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans." Gary Bauer, wing-nut presidential candidate in 2000, declared the deal a "sellout." The right-wing blogosphere is foaming at the mouth over the "seven Republican senators who have betrayed their party, their country, and the Constitution."

Any deal that pisses those people off can't be all bad. And this deal isn't, at least for those who believe keeping reactionary judges off the U.S. Supreme Court is the most important priority. But if winning the 2006 elections is the top priority, then Democrats may have been better off letting Republican zealots hungry for absolute power run roughshod over the deliberative traditions of the Senate.

If you haven't been following closely, the key elements of the deal are these: Three of Bush's nominees-Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen, and William Pryor-will get up or down votes in the Senate. All three, who are arguably the most far out of Bush's nominees, will likely be approved, though Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the Republican dealmakers, hinted last night that one of them lacks the votes to win approval in the full Senate. That's what the Republicans get. Democrats get to kill the nominations of four other judges, and they preserve the option of using the filibuster under "extraordinary" circumstances, i.e., if Bush, as expected, attempts to nominate a Dobsonite wacko to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While we will never know for sure, it was likely that if the hypocritical, sanctimonious Frist, who once upon a time thought it was perfectly constitutional to filibuster a controversial Clinton judicial nominee, pulled the trigger on the nuclear option, he would have won, thus bolstering his stature with the Christian right. Now the former heart surgeon, who is so enamored of his medical skills that he felt comfortable offering an upbeat diagnosis for Terri Schiavo based on a few snippets of videotape, is a big loser, his presidential ambitions slipping into a persistent vegetative state. It's bad news for Senator George Allen too. The Virginia Republican also harbors presidential ambitions, and pushed for the end of the filibuster. Rumor is that Senator John Warner, Virginia's senior senator who helped engineer the deal, wanted to undercut his colleague's White House chances.

(Whatever Warner's motivations, I can attest to the fact that Allen is an idiot. When I met him last year, he immediately launched into a lengthy, pointless, and vaguely offensive soliloquy about how he had once met some other Indian guy who also had a funny name that he couldn't quite remember. I nodded and smiled as the other reporters in the room rolled their eyes.)

Anyway, in the short term, the deal is a win for Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a devout Mormon-and a Howard Dean buddy-was thrilled. Frist, who has now been exposed as a paper tiger to his fanatical base, was not.

But the downside is that this deal somewhat undermines the overarching case Democrats are building against Republicans, which they will use to run on in the 2006 election. That is the claim that Republicans are arrogant, dangerous ideologues guilty of "abuse of power" (as Dean said last Sunday, May 22, on Meet the Press), a potentially resonant attack that ties together the Schiavo overreach, Tom DeLay's ethical troubles, the attempt to destroy Social Security, and so on. Frist's evisceration of the filibuster would have fit nicely under that rubric. That there is a lot of truth to this critique is why Dems, despite losing most recent legislative battles, have been winning the public opinion war, and why winning now over judges may, perversely, translate into a loss at the ballot box next year. ■

sandeep@thestranger.com