Political Divide

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, November 12, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JUDGE ANDREW NAPOLITANO, GUEST HOST: There's going to be lot of talk about those four federal judgeships on the Senate floor tonight, and tomorrow and tomorrow night. Instead of saving his voice right now, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell joins me from Capitol Hill to talk about the filibuster scheduled to start in about 40 minutes. So, Sen. McConnell, today's big question, what is at stake over the next 30 hours on Capitol Hill?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-KY., SENATOR MAJORITY WHIP: Well, what we're trying to do, Judge, is bring to the public's attention the fact that circuit court judges are being filibustered for the first time in 220-some- odd-year history of the United States. That's never happened before. And so, we're having this all-night session in order to call to the attention of the public the fact that this unprecedented obstructionism is going on. Most people think that in the world's oldest democracy if you can get a majority you are entitled to move ahead. Only in the United States Senate has it now been imposed that you need have to get a super majority in order to become a federal circuit judge.

NAPOLITANO: We all know the basic facts. It takes 51 votes to be confirmed as a judge, but if one side is filibustering it takes 60 votes to break the filibuster.


NAPOLITANO: The Republicans as I understand it and some Democrats have enough votes together to pass on all these nominees, but they cannot get the nominees to the floor because the Democrats, what, won't stop talking?

MCCONNELL: Well, we've had a number of different what's called closures votes, that is trying to get 60, which would shut off the debate. We have failed on a number of closure votes on several of these judges. We are going to have three more closure votes on Friday. My suspicion, Judge, is that we will be denied closure once again.

NAPOLITANO: All right, here is what I don't understand. Usually the party doing the filibustering is the party that wants to stop something from happening, not the party that wants to cause something to happen. Here it's the Democrats that want to stop the vote. It's the Democrats that want to filibuster against men, women, African-American, Latino. It's the Democrats who are obstructing. Why don't the Republicans let the Democrats conduct the filibuster. They're the ones that are talking the Senate into stopping its business?

MCCONNELL: Because under our rules if you have an extended session like this, all the pressure is really on us. All the Democrats have to do is to have one person on the floor. And if they think we don't have a quorum, suggest the absence of quorum, none of their members would have to get out of bed to come in. All the pressure would be on us to be here all the time. And we have 51 Republican senators, which is all of our senators, who are going to be here around the clock, in case they do suggest the absence of a quorum. All of this is kind of legislative mumbo jumbo to your viewers.

The reason they are the ones filibustering is because we have tried on numerous occasions to get closure, that is 60 votes to stop the filibuster and get to an up or down vote. They have denied closure on four different judges. There are seven more that they plan to do this to. It's never been done before in history. They say it's only four times. That's four more than has ever happened in the whole history of the United States.

NAPOLITANO: All right, just to be fair, didn't the Republicans filibuster President Johnson's nomination to elevate associate justice Abe Fortas to the chief justiceship back in 1965, and as a result, Abe Fordyce withdrew his nomination and resigned from the court?

MCCONNELL: What happened was that there was a bipartisan filibuster there. There was opposition on both sides to the Fordyce nomination and he did subsequently withdraw. There has been an occasional closure vote on circuit judges over the years, but, judge, it's been to advance the nomination, not to stop it. There's been situations where you had just a few Senators who objected. And so you were trying to move the nomination forward not kill it. This is the first time in history that these judges have been killed.

NAPOLITANO: One last question before I let you go, how will we know who wins tonight?

MCCONNELL: What we're trying to do is to educate the American people as to what's been going on here. At the end of the day, the Democrats are likely to continue to prevent an up or down or a majority vote on our nominees. So you can call that a victory. We think that the voters ought to take this into account next November in deciding who they want to send to the United States Senate.

NAPOLITANO: All right, Sen. Mitch McConnell, you have a long night ahead of you, my advice, drink a lot of espresso. Thanks for joining us.

MCCONNELL: Thank you, Judge.

NAPOLITANO: There's always been a deep divide between liberals and conservatives here, but lately the divisions seem to be getting deeper, The arguments nastier. The liberals are digging in just as hard as the conservatives used to. "New York times'" writer Nicholas Kristov looks at the political divide in his column in the "Times" today and he joins us now. And that is the big question, Nick. Is the partisan divide in this country making us dysfunctional? What do you say?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF, WRITER, "NEW YORK TIMES": I don't think it's making us dysfunctional, but I think it is beginning to paralyze some parts of the political process. Judicial nominations are certainly one example of that. Also it is discouraging a lot of good people from entering public life. And I think I come at it partly from the fact that I lived in Europe in the early 1980's, and I saw then how paralyzed Europe was by a political divide where people looked across and they didn't just disapprove of the other side. They thought they were really immoral. And I'm afraid we're creeping toward that.

NAPOLITANO: We have seen articles lately in national publications of "Why I Hate the Bush Administration." Why I'm proud to hate George Bush. What is that hatred that is animating Democrats and liberals that seem to be pushing this idea that that man right there, the commander-in-chief, is worthy of hatred?

KRISTOF: To be fair, I think there was a very similar anger on the Republicans' side in the Clinton administration.

NAPOLITANO: There was. No question about it.

KRISTOF: And I think that what we're seeing now is that the passions and intensity of feeling is reaching the Democratic side that we earlier saw on the Republicans'. I think it was counterproductive for Newt Gingrich, for example. I think it is going to be counterproductive to have that level of anger among the Democrats.

NAPOLITANO: What is it about George Bush that they hate, not dislike or disagree with but hate? Is it the fact that he's from Texas? Is it the fact that he won with fewer popular votes than Al Gore had? What is it?

KRISTOF: I think that as with Clinton, there's a sense of somebody being fundamentally dishonest. There's a sense that the president is not being honest with the American people on top of a fundamental disagreement on policy. But I think that to some extent politically it works to have other people do the attacking, but I think that when a candidate does that, it is deeply harmful. I think it's no accident that the last two presidents we had, one projected himself as the man from hope and the other projected himself as a deeply optimistic kind of candidate.

NAPOLITANO: Do you think that the Democrats fear that President Bush is trying to use the war to change our culture and our values on things like patriotism and self-restraint?

KRISTOF: I think that there is certainly a sense among the Democratic core that the president is using the 9/11 aftermath of it to curb civil liberties, for example, to invade other countries in a way and to act in ways contrary to American traditions. It seems to me that it is perfectly fair to make that a topic of vigorous political debate, but I think it is unhelpful and really harmful to their interests to make it personal.

NAPOLITANO: You talked in your article this morning, which was a great article, by the way, we were talking about it during the break about the God Gulf. What is the God Gulf? Is there a difference between Republicans and Democrats and the number of people who believe in God?

KRISTOF: I think that that is one of the things that if I were a Democratic leader I would be most worried about. It used to be that both parties were fairly similar on the God issue. And that was because there were a lot of Southern evangelicals who were Democrats. Back in 1987, white evangelicals were almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Now 2-1, they're Republicans. Among white Catholics who attend mass regularly, Democrats used to have an 18-point advantage, now Republicans have an advantage. The country is becoming more religious and it seems to me that the Democratic core is becoming more secular. That seems to be something that the Democrats should look at very closely.

NAPOLITANO: All right, you said this morning that three times as many people believe in the virgin birth than believe in evolution. Do those who believe that Jesus was born of a virgin are they more likely to vote for George Bush?

KRISTOF: Well, I don't think it's been quite asked that way, but I think that the core who believe in evolution are fundamentally more likely to vote for the Democratic Party and those who believe in, for example, it has been asked, do you believe that there will be a judgment day? There George Bush has the advantage.

NAPOLITANO: The next time you come back, we'll talk about why that breakdown is the way it is.

KRISTOF: I would be happy to.

NAPOLITANO: Nic Kristof from "The New York Times." Thank you very much.

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