Blame It on Capra

Is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to blame for current Senate gridlock?

Feb 24, 2010 at 2:06 pm

As the latest issue of Time magazine spells out, our government is frozen because Senate Republicans are playing a game, blocking virtually all important bills that the Democratic majority wants to pass, especially much-needed health-care reform.

That such a political strategy is cruelly un-public-spirited in its refusal to work with a majority to solve problems is beside the point. As Time explains, the Republican policy of being the “party of no” worked during the Clinton administration — when it pioneered it — and could work again. The public tends to get frustrated “at Congress” and vote out the party in power.

In this case it would be Democrats, since President Obama took office with a 2008 electoral landslide and Democrats until recently had a 60-40 majority in the Senate. You can already see that kind of reaction reflected in Republican Scott Brown’s election to a vacant Senate seat from Massachusetts, which now gives Republicans 41 seats.

But wait a minute. You might wonder why the Republicans can stall the Senate when the party only had 40 out of 100 seats. It’s because it can threaten at any moment to “go nuclear” — use the threat of a filibuster (non-stop talking on the Senate floor) to tie up any vote. Democrats must have at least 60 votes to stop it through cloture, which raises its own problems.

All in all, the use of the filibuster constitutes “democracy abuse” — historically, racist Southern Democrats shamefully invoked it for decades to block civil-rights legislation, even an anti-lynching law. (There are occasional cases of Progressives like Wayne Morse using it, too.)

So why doesn’t an incensed American public demand the Senate reform or eliminate filibuster use? It is not mandated by the Constitution.

I blame the movies. Specifically, I blame Frank Capra, Hollywood’s great populist director who won three Academy Awards for helming 1934’s It Happened One Night, 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You.

In 1939, he made a classic called Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture but lost to Gone With the Wind. Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster wrote its screenplay, with assistance from Myles Connolly. In one of American cinema’s most famous performances, Jimmy Stewart plays a grown-up Boy Scout (an adult leader of the Boy Rangers, actually) named Jefferson Smith who is appointed to the Senate by a corrupt party organization in an unnamed state after the incumbent has died.

The governor’s kids push for him, and the state party thinks he’ll be too na