Harry Reid Bayonets A Grand Illusion
La Grande Illusion, the 1937 Jean Renoir film, is one of the great masterpieces of French cinema. Although the story is set in WWI, it is rooted in time, less about war, and more about the relationships between men.
Two French aviators, the aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu and his working-class Lieutenant Maréchal, go on a reconnaissance flight. Their plane is tracked and shot down by the German aviator and Junker, Rittmeister von Rauffenstein. The two Frenchmen land safely, but are captured. When Von Rauffenstein returns to base and learns this, he inquires whether they are officers, and when the answer is in the affirmative, they are invited to lunch. During the meal, von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu discover they have mutual acquaintances—and an odd friendship is begun.
The idyll is short-lived, and de Boeldieu and Maréchal are moved from camp to camp, suffering greatly, finally arriving in Wintersborn, a mountain fortress prison commanded by Von Rauffenstein himself. Van Rauffenstein can no longer fly, having been badly injured in battle. He chafes at inaction as much as he chafes at brace on his back, but he renews his friendship with de Boeldieu.
Wintersborn, the Germans think, is escape proof, but de Boeldieu comes up with a scheme. The prisoners create a commotion, and when the German guards assemble, de Boeldieu calls attention to himself on a fortress roof. The guards shoot, but thanks to de Boeldieu’s distraction, Maréchal and another prisoner, Rosenthal, escape.
Von Rauffenstein emerges and has the guards stop shooting at de Boeldieu. He begs his friend to come down, but de Boeldieu refuses. Von Rauffenstein finally shoots at de Bouldieu’s legs, but the stiffness from his injuries causes him to hit de Bouldieu’s stomach, mortally wounding him. In de Bouldieu’s final moments, Von Rauffenstein, who is consumed by guilt, attends to him. His death marks the passing of not merely a friendship, but an era where the kinship of those of a common class was often more important that mere national borders. Their era is passing, to be replaced by one that is perhaps more egalitarian, but more brutish.
I don’t know if Harry Reid is an old movie fan, but I think he’s absorbed the lessons of Grand Illusion, both past and present. His institution, the Senate, has long functioned as a type of aristocracy, a “cooling dish” designed by the Founders as a place for contemplation and debate, quite untainted by the hurly burly of those crass two-year House of Representative types.
Sarcasm aside, there is much to support this argument. The Founders were influenced by the House of Commons/House of Lords model, as are almost all of the State legislatures. Theoretically, the six-year term serves as insulation from the hottest political passions and allows the luxury of legislating in a more inclusive way. Even that wasn’t enough, however. The Constitution itself created an even greater opportunity for the elites to keep sway. Until the enactment of the 17th Amendment in 1913 (1913!!) it was state legislatures that picked Senators.
Inside the Senate, a web of rules has taken hold to give minorities, even a minority of one, the ability to delay or even block legislation or Presidential nominees. The filibuster is the most prominent one, but procedural tricks like the Senatorial hold can gum up the works effectively. Again, this is supposed to have a moderating effect: if the majority knows that the minority can be obstructive, they pick with more care and “cool the dish” again.
The system has largely worked. You can always find mistakes or overreaching, but generally Senators have played by the rules. They roll out the filibuster for something really big, with the implicit understanding that it’s a “no” for this person or law, at this time, under this set of circumstances. Historically, it was preserved for things like Southern opposition to Civil Rights legislation or a way-out-there nominee—a discreet, isolated, no. Through 1970, there were virtually no filibusters.
Have there been mistakes and overreach, by both sides? Of course. But they have been mitigated by four interlocking concepts. The first is that, to an extent, elections do matter, and you give the President a certain amount of leeway (not unlimited, but a fair amount) to pick his own Cabinet and judicial nominees. The second is practical: government has to function, and while nutty Congressman can be bomb-throwers because they have no one to answer to other than their possibly equally nutty District, Senators have a broader responsibility and know better. The third is purely self-protective, although probably the most motivating; there is no such thing as a permanent Senate majority, and the shoe will be on the other foot. And the fourth is a corollary of the third: use the tool too often, and it will be taken away.
But the rules of the game have changed, because the aristocracy of the Senate is fading into irrelevance. The numbers are staggering. The GOP uses the filibuster for virtually everything they oppose, both appointments and legislation. As Ezra Klein quotes Professor Gregory Koger of the University of Miami, it has become the “new veto point in American politics”.
There are a lot of reasons for this. The “aristocracy” is fading—fully 40 new Senators have been elected over the past decade, and many are coming from the fiercely partisan House of Representatives. These people have no institutional memory beyond trench warfare. Mix the newbies from the House with the Tea Party-take-no-prisoner types like Ted Cruz, and cooperation becomes a mortal sin. And, it is not only the parties that have become more polarized; the regionalization of ideology is becoming the rule. In effect, whole states are becoming more like Congressional Districts—win the primary by satisfying the most motivated and rabid, and you win the Senate seat. That pulls everyone from the center--even established Republican Senators who have been dealmakers in the past have had to prove their bona fides by playing the partisan. That’s not merely rhetoric—look at Lindsey Graham (former member of the “Gang of Fourteen”) blocking everyone in sight. His excuse—a 60 Minutes report on Benghazi. When CBS had to retract it, Graham simply said, “never mind” and dug in. His original rationale was no longer relevant, but the answer was no, it would remain no, it will always be no.
Harry Reid is no saint. But he also recognizes the obvious. In a game where one side no longer plays by the rules, then the rules only constrain the side observing them. He got support from Senate Democrats, many of who are still institutionally (not politically) conservative, because they now believe that the minute the GOP gets control of the Senate, they will toss out any Senate rule they don’t agree with, no matter how long-standing. In this respect, John Boehner did the nation a great disservice last month with his eleventh-hour seizure of power in the House—he eliminated the rule that any House Member could get a vote on a pending bill and arrogated it only to the Speaker or his designee. And, the GOP’s opposition to three Obama nominees to the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals might have been the clincher. Even Republicans agree that all three are highly qualified. They just don’t want them on that Court, because it is presently a tie. So they have outdone themselves with specious excuses, including the latest that the Court isn’t busy enough. There isn’t a Democrat in the Senate who doesn’t believe that this alleged lack of workload will suddenly disappear upon the election of a Republican President.
In short, there is no trust. While it is hard to visualize Reid and McConnell as the dashing, elegant, and honorable de Bouldieu and Von Rauffenstein, simply sticking to the rules shouldn’t have been a stretch. But they haven’t, to everyone’s detriment.
Renoir’s film was widely admired and became the first foreign film to be nominated for an Oscar. The original print was thought lost, but, in the late 1950s, a partially restored version was made from extant prints. Renoir personally reintroduced La Grande Illusion, saying “It is also a story about human relationships, and I am convinced that the question is so important today that, if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say goodbye to our beautiful world.”
I agree with Renoir. And I think Reid made a mistake, because I believe human relationships mean something, and the rules mean something.
But, I understand Reid’s thinking. As de Boeldieu tells von Rauffenstein, "Neither you nor I can stop the march of time.”
Please visit us on Twitter @ SyncPol