Never underestimate the determination of Washington Democrats to try and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Just as it was reported Tuesday that Americans strongly support the Democratic campaign to preserve the judicial filibuster — and with it their ability of responsible senators to prevent the most rabid extremists from joining the federal bench — so it was also reported that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, was seeking a compromise on what ought to be a matter of principle. The compromise that Reid was advancing would have seen Republicans back off their push for a “nuclear option” to shut down filibusters in return for Democratic acquiescence to the GOP’s demand that some of the White House’s most objectionable judicial nominations be allowed to advance.

The good news is that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, rejected the compromise. Frist, who is desperate to get in bed with the religious right in order to promote his 2008 presidential campaign, recognized that his political ambitions would be thwarted if he was seen to be compromising with the demonized Democrats. He also heard the message loud and clear from the White House, where political (and now domestic policy) czar Karl Rove indicated in an interview with USA Today that there is no taste for deal making on judicial nominees.

Forced out his compromising position by the Republican right, Reid can now scramble back to the high ground, where the vast majority of Americans stand. Amazingly, considering the minority leader’s missteps of the past few days, Reid and his fellow Democrats might yet win the fight to preserve the system of checks and balances that the founders of the republic established. But no one should forget that, at precisely the wrong moment, Reid wanted to surrender rather than fight. Nor should anyone miss the point here: Reid is not a bad man. He simply suffers from a bad condition: insideritis.

Reid has spent so much time inside the Capitol, and so little time in America, that he does not trust his own rhetoric. Even though he is absolutely right when he says that Frist and the religious right are attempting to force legally-inept judicial activists into positions where they do not belong, Reid succumbed to fears that the American people might not be with him on the question of whether the rule of law ought to prevail in America.

Reid’s failure of faith was misguided. As it turns out, the American people overwhelmingly oppose changing the rules of the Senate to make it easier for the Republican majority in that chamber to confirm Bush’s court nominees. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, Americans disapprove of Frist’s “nuclear option” by a 66-26 margin. While eight in 10 Democrats opposed the move to undermine one of the essential elements of the Senate’s traditional “advice and consent” role, as did seven in 10 independents, the most interesting numbers were those from members of Frist’s own party. Almost half of the Republicans who were surveyed said they opposed the majority leader’s scheming to make it harder for Democratic senators to prevent final action on the president’s most inept and ideologically-extreme judicial nominees.

Those numbers add up to a clear conclusion: Instead of seeking a compromise, Reid and the other Democrats should be going for a win. And the way to do so is by reaching out to the rational Republicans in the Senate. Two Republicans, John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, have indicated that they will side with the Democrats on any vote to eliminate the judicial filibuster. Another Republican, moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine, has said she has “deep concerns about this approach.,” and Maine’s other Republican senator, Susan Collins , is expected by many to join Snowe in voting with the Democrats.

That means that, to block the “nuclear option,” Reid needs just two more Republicans. (Opponents must secure 51 votes in favor of maintaining the right to filibuster, as a 50-50 tie would be broken by Vice President Dick Cheney, who favors going nuclear.) Are there two more Republicans who might be convinced? Conservatives think so. Their blogs are buzzing with concern that John Warner of Virginian, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, among others, might vote reject Frist’s “tyranny of the majority” strategy.

Far from being a time for compromise, this is a time for fighting — not just to score partisan points, nor even to represent the clear will of the American people, but to preserve the system of legislative checks and balances that is so essential to the American experiment.

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John Nichols’s new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, “At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.” Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, “Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial.” Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com