And now it is finally over. The long campaign for the presidency has come to an end and Barack Obama will be the 44th president of the United States.
I thought the most important line in a very impressive speech last night was this: “this victory is not the change we seek”. In other words, this is great, let’s celebrate, but all that talk of change for the last two years didn’t refer to an election result, but to the work we must all do together as a nation.
Amen to that.
Perhaps there is no single day in any four year cycle when our country is more unified than it is the day after an election. Yes, there were emotions rubbed raw and there are some hard feelings harbored by some people. But, regardless of your political affiliation, this day is filled with the voices of people vowing to work with our new president.
Of course, it is hard to keep those vows for very long, especially in a Washington that has grown noticeably more cynical in the nearly 30 years I have been here. The new president must keep his vow to reach across the aisle, as must his congressional allies. And it is true that the party in power must make the first move. But, the opposition party must then respond to those overtures and work together to do the basic business of the country.
There are certain issues that have always been overtly political and on which stalemate was likely. These days, though, stalemate seems to be the order of the day for everything. That was why the second most watched race of the day was whether the Democrats would reach the 60 seats needed to overcome filibusters. When I first got to Washington, a filibuster meant that someone actually had to get up and talk for several hours, maybe even a day or two. Only then would a cloture petition be filed.
For those who don’t understand this, Senate rules allow unlimited debate unless there is unanimous consent for a time limit and a vote. For most of history, and for most routine business, unanimous consent would be given to time limits for most legislation. Bills to reauthorize the FAA were a good example of this; they were seen as part of the basic business of the country and it was recognized that they had to pass. So, senators would agree on a time limit.
A big exception was civil rights legislation, and the cloture process was devised as a way to bring civil rights bills to the floor. At first, two-thirds of senators were required to invoke cloture, which was reduced to 60 senators in the 1960’s.
By the time I left the Senate (1986), cloture votes would be taken whenever someone threatened a filibuster; gone were the days when someone actually had to stand up and talk. These days, it has further evolved (or devolved) and cloture votes are taken routinely.
Barack Obama is only the third president ever elected directly from the Senate (Harding and Kennedy were the other two). Hopefully, that experience, and the bipartisan relationships he has developed, will help him take the necessary steps to govern effectively in these tough times.