I have been watching a three part series on World War I and it has caused me to think deeply about the role the United States plays in the leadership of the world. It is a complex question and one that people arrive at different answers all while viewing the same set of facts.
World War I was the Great War that was fought to end all wars. Woodrow Wilson was the President of the United States and while he tried to keep the United States out of the war he ultimately came to decide that it was the duty of America to step in and save the world for democracy. That decision ultimately led to the allies prevailing and negotiating a treaty that for better or worse ended the war and set the conditions in motion that would lead to an even more devastating war twenty years later.
The primary goal of President Wilson was to fight the war and establish a League of Nations that would become the arbiter of disputes between nations and in his eyes prevent future wars. Negotiating the treaty to end the war was difficult but one of the first sections of the treaty called for the creation of the League of Nations and this was viewed as a great victory for Woodrow Wilson. He had spent months in Paris helping to shape this agreement and now he was faced with the task of getting the treaty approved by the U.S. Senate.
Wilson’s task was complicated by the fact that this southern Democrat viewed the United States as a world leader and many of his political adversaries failed to share this dream. Whether anyone liked it or not the United States had entered World War I as a minor player on the world stage and a nation that was in debt to its European allies. In the aftermath of the war the United States emerged as the most powerful nation in the world and was on the path to become and economic juggernaut.
But then things began to fall apart for Woodrow Wilson. First his health began to fail him. Second, his nemesis in the Senate Henry Cabot Lodge had positioned himself as the polar opposite of what Wilson sought to achieve. Wilson had lost the mid term elections and Republicans had control of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. With this political schism in the country Wilson tried in vain to pass the Treaty of Versailles and make the U.S. a signatory to the treaty and a part of the new League of Nations. In the end Henry Cabot Lodge offered a series of amendments to the treaty that would have given Wilson everything he wanted but the political divide between the two leaders was such that Wilson directed the Democrats in the Senate to vote down the treaty. It was his personal animus towards Lodge that colored his decision.
This defeat of the Treaty of Versailles in the United States Senate is a reminder of the political balkanization that exists in Washington DC today. In the previous administration President Obama was forced to deal with a Republican Senate and House and proved to be very ineffective in finding a way to negotiate any compromises with the opposition. Today we have President Trump looking for ways to work with not only Democrats in the Senate but also rogue Republicans in the House.
To get a clear example of how dysfunctional our government has become we need only look to the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Here was a judge that was deemed highly qualified by every body in the legal community and one that had been confirmed to the appellate court ten years earlier by a voice vote with unanimity in the Senate. But Democrats were still angry over losing an election they thought they had won and the left wing of the party was flexing its muscle by demanding that the Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) do everything possible to stop the confirmation including filibustering the nominee.
This effort forced the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), to change the rules of the Senate and use the so-called “nuclear option” that would allow the Senate to confirm Gorsuch with a simple majority vote. This change will now become the standard for future nominees and as I have written in previous blog posts I think this is a step backward for the both the Senate and the nation. There is a high probability that President Trump will have another nomination to the Court and Democrats have now given their greatest weapon, the filibuster, away without gaining anything in either concessions or public opinion.
Had the Democrats allowed Neil Gorsuch to be confirmed without a filibuster they would have kept that weapon available to them in the next fight. It would have been much more difficult for McConnell to change the rules on the second fight. It is that possible second nominee that could actually change the make up of the Court. They need only have looked at the Court and the ages of Ruth Bader Ginzburg, Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy. All are well past 75 and if Clinton had won the election both Ginzburg and Breyer would be announcing plans to retire and allow her to appoint replacements.
In the future the majority party of the Senate will be able to either deny or confirm any nominees. That means if the Democrats win back the White House in 2020 and the Republicans have control of the Senate, or vice versa, the President will have to acquiesce to the wishes of the controlling party in the Senate. This is a major problem in my opinion. Gone are the days when we judged nominees based on their qualifications and not their politics.
The next step might be to totally eliminate the ability of the minority party to filibuster any legislation. McConnell has said he has no plans to take this action but events might force his hand. That would make the Senate, a body that was envisioned by our founding fathers as a more deliberative body, nothing more than a glorified House of Representatives where the minority party has almost no power.
I should point out that at this juncture in time President Trump has his own problems in the Republican Party. The House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 34 House members, has decided they can hold hostage any legislation they don’t agree with. With the Democrats caving to the left wing of their party there is little chance of negotiating a compromise bill with them. We have become a government of dysfunction and both political parties can share equally in the blame.