I know of no man, even among those who devote all of their time to watching public affairs, who can even pretend to keep track, at the same time, of his city government, his state government, Congress, the departments, the industrial situation, and the rest of the world. What men who make a study of politics as a vocation cannot do, the man who has an hour a day for newspapers and talk cannot possibly hope to do. He must seize catchwords and headlines or nothing.
There are many things that Congress does, many important choices it makes, that are complicated. Take legislation, for example. As we are reminded daily by the roiling debate over the Affordable Care Act, both before and after its passage nearly two years ago, there are typically a great many moving parts that go into a federal statute. To a mathematical certainty, I would bet, the complexity of the policy choice -- who benefits, who bears the burden, who decides -- begets the variety (and the validity) of the spin. That's why Republicans had so little smack to offer President Obama when U.S. troops killed Osama bin Laden last May.
On the other hand, the more complicated the matter, the more prone it is to demagoguery, the more easily it can be manipulated. The loaded word "Obamacare," for example, is a perfect illustration of what Lippmann meant about "catchwords." Never mind what the law's details involve, or what it actually does; to the millions of people opposed to the Affordable Care Act, "Obamacare" connotes some degree of malevolent control on the part of the president, his White House, and his other federal offices, over individual health care choices.
You can spin a law. You can spin a policy. You can spin the influence of lobbyists and political money. You can spin judicial decisions and congressional hearings and you can even spin what's broadcast on C-Span every day if you really wanted to. What cannot be spun, however, what is so simple and basic a matter of governance that it beggars spin, is the choice United States senators must make when they are voting on judicial nominees who already have been broadly endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Which brings us to Wednesday and a potential showdown in the Senate which ought to be required following for every high school and college political-science class. There is a lot at stake. First, we are going to find out whether the Senate in this election year is capable even of ministerial functions like making sure there are enough judges to respond to the crush of federal litigation all over the country. Second, we are going to be reminded now of how vital the race for control of the Senate is going to be leading up to November's vote.
Like all pressure points, this one is borne of frustration. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced on Monday that he was fed up with Republican intransigence over the president's pending judicial nominees and that he would move, at the same time, to invoke cloture on 17 such nominees. The move could tie the chamber up for weeks of debate -- and there is no other way to perceive it but as an exercise of raw power by the majority to force the minority into making substantive choices about the nominees.