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Can The Democrats Be As Stubborn As Mitch McConnell?

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Can The Democrats Be As Stubborn As Mitch McConnell?

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Democrats struggling to stem the tide

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica. This story was co-published with The New York Times Sunday Review.

In laying the groundwork recently for President Trump’s nomination for the Supreme Court, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, had this to say: “What we hope would be that our Democratic friends will treat President Trump’s nominees in the same way that we treated Clinton and Obama.”

McConnell was referring to his party’s grudging acceptance, without resort to filibusters, of President Obama’s first-term nominees to the court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. What McConnell notably neglected to mention, of course, was the very different approach he himself had taken with the open seat Trump was now on the verge of filling: refusing even to hold a confirmation hearing last year for Obama’s nominee, Merrick B. Garland.

That McConnell could now blithely ask for a routine reception of a Trump nominee for the very seat that he managed to freeze unfilled for nearly a year galls Democrats to no end and demonstrates, more than ever, that it’s impossible to match McConnell for sheer chutzpah. But his comment also underscored the conundrum that the Democrats and their new leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, now confront in the Senate minority.

As McConnell showed in the first six years of President Obama’s tenure, the Senate’s rules and traditions allow a determined minority to block much of a president’s agenda — indeed, the Democrats’ 48 Senate seats are their only real leverage against President Trump. But McConnell’s unprecedented use of the filibuster — which forced Democrats to muster 60 votes to get anything done — and other obstructionist tactics drew loud rebukes from Democrats and traditionalists, who identified his intransigence as eroding longstanding norms and contributing greatly to voters’ anger over a dysfunctional Washington.

Can Democrats, who are more philosophically invested in showing that government can function, really bring themselves to replicate McConnell’s obstructionist methods? Would they really be willing to withhold cooperation even in areas where they and President Trump might find agreement, such as a major infrastructure package?

These questions are especially pressing for Senate Democrats because of the landscape they face next year, when 25 of their seats (including those of the two independents who caucus with them) are up for re-election, as opposed to only eight Republican ones. Those 25 include five states that Trump won handily: West Virginia, Missouri, Indiana, Montana, and North Dakota. Doesn’t unified opposition to the president mean risking those seats and further diminishing their minority status?

A closer look at McConnell’s opposition during the Obama years suggests that the choices confronting Schumer and the Democrats may not be as stark as they seem. For one thing, the McConnell approach does not preclude going through the motions of working with the president of the opposite party. Recall that in the summer of 2009 McConnell allowed three Republicans, led by Chuck Grassley of Iowa, to spend months meeting with three Democratic counterparts on health care reform. The negotiations came to naught, allowing McConnell to claim that his party’s eventual monolithic vote against the Affordable Care Act came only after the Democrats’ refusal to move off their “far left” proposal.

The meetings also dragged out debate around the bill, helping sour the public on the legislation. As Robert F. Bennett, then a Utah senator and close McConnell ally, who died last year, told me of McConnell in early 2014: “He said, ‘Our strategy is to delay this sucker as long as we possibly can, and the longer we delay it the worse the president looks: Why can’t he get it done?’” He remembered the party leader’s promise to “delay it, delay it, delay it as long as we can.” The main lesson: “Every time something would come up, he would find a way to delay it.” Another lesson for Schumer and the Democrats might be that they could enter into negotiations over an infrastructure package, but insist on doing it mostly on their terms.

The record of Republican intransigence in the Obama years also suggests that voters pay far less attention to the legislative process than Washington insiders would like to believe. What McConnell recognized was that a president’s party is rewarded in midterm elections if he’s popular and getting things done, and punished if he’s not. Grassley, for instance, might’ve been tempted to help President Obama create a bipartisan health care bill since he hailed from a state, Iowa, that had embraced Obama in 2008. Instead, by withholding support, and even endorsing the “death panel” rhetoric around the bill, Grassley fueled the resistance to the “overreaching” president in 2010 and easily won re-election that year.

Similarly, Senate Democrats’ 2018 prospects in states that Trump won will depend more on whether he’s seen as succeeding — on how energized or demoralized the ends of the polarized electorate are — than on whether a given senator found an issue or two of common ground with him.

All of this still leaves the basic question of whether Democrats really have it in them to slow government to a crawl as much as McConnell did. Their willingness, goaded on by an inflamed Democratic base, to force postponements of committee votes on Trump nominees suggests they just might. The biggest test still awaits: whether, in protest of the treatment of Garland, to filibuster the confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch, which could lead to Republicans’ eliminating the filibuster for court confirmations once and for all.

The two sides of the debate facing the Democrats have been articulated by a veteran arbiter of Washington mores, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Shortly after the election, he urged Schumer not to mimic the obstructionist methods of McConnell. He wrote: Democrats “will be tempted to adopt the Republican playbook from 2009, when Democrats controlled Washington: Vote in unison against everything, filibuster everything, even those things you like, to obstruct action and make it look ugly, allow damage to the country in the short term to reap political rewards in the next election.” He thought that would be a mistake, because it would limit the ability of Democrats to do anything positive.

But Ornstein told me that he is changing his thinking on this, after witnessing initial Trump moves such as the ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries and witnessing how reluctant Republicans have been to provide a check on him. He now recommends that Democrats stall President Trump’s agenda by repeatedly denying unanimous consent on the Senate floor.

This sounds similar to McConnell’s brand of obstruction, but Ornstein argues it’s not, because the opponent is different. “We don’t have a conventional president,” he said. “We’re seeing behavior that could lead us right down the path to martial law or authoritarian rule. These are dangerous times, and you have to think through your strategy in that context.” For Democrats, using “leverage to pull us back from the brink of something that shatters our fundamental system is now in order.”

Of course, McConnell had framed the context for his own obstructionism in dire terms, too, saying it was necessary to withhold bipartisan cooperation from Obama so that voters would realize just how radical his agenda really was. Now, with Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress, McConnell is calling for a new era of comity. “The first thing we have to do is move beyond this us-and-them mentality that has so often characterized the last eight years,” he said on the Senate floor late last month. “We’re all in this together. We rise and fall as one.”

IMAGE: The mascots of the Democratic and Republican parties, a donkey for the Democrats and an elephant for the GOP, are seen on a video screen at Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio March 8, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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8 Comments

  1. dbtheonly February 4, 2017

    Given the tenor, theme, and goal of the Trump Administration, I’ve got to question if Democrats, “are more philosophically invested in showing that government can function”. Do we really want the government functioning when it repeals the Voting Rights Act? Do we really want the government functioning when it repeals the EPA? Do we really want the government functioning when it eliminates taxes on the wealthiest? I could go on.

    But there is a path forward. The Republican party has several fractures in it. Democrats should weigh in to strengthen and widen those gaps. Major infrastructure spending? Sure. Opposing expanding the debt limit to pay for that spending? Hey, it’s a long time Republican policy.

    Trump is trying to destroy the America I love.

    I have no problem reading the Republican speeches from the past 8 years back to them.

    Reply
    1. latebloomingrandma February 4, 2017

      Mitch McConnell is one of the most despicable people in Washington. If the heartland of the country wanted to shake up or blow up or clean up Washington, they should have picked on Congresspeople instead of the Presidency. That’s where the problem as been before Trump. Now we’re about to have a trifecta of extremes.

      1. dbtheonly February 4, 2017

        Agree entirely, grandma.

        Instead we’re getting those stating that Bernie Sanders “should have been allowed to win the nomination”(!) A comment either appalling in its ignorance of the process or dismissive of the millions of us who voted against him.

        Instead of dealing with financing college educations; we’re facing the elimination of free Public Schooling.

        Instead of dealing with climate change; we’re facing the real possibility that the government won’t even keep the statistics.

        Instead of a force for peace; we’re facing a President who specifically threatened to invade a (formerly) friendly country.

        God help the USA.

  2. rednekokie February 4, 2017

    Schumer should grow some balls and do any and everything he can, as minority leader, to stop, slow down, or oppose anything Mitch McConnell tries to do – unless, of course, it is in the interest of the American people, which, as we now know, none of it will be.
    If filibusters do it, or demanding the 60 percent majority, or whatever – he should do it, and do it regularly and without hesitation. McConnell should learn quickly that what he has sown, now he shall reap.
    Nothing, I’ve seen so far, from the Trump administration gives me any hope at all of having a free and democratic government. He is the closest thing to an absolute dictator we have ever had in the oval office. And McConnell is right alongside him. Not the America that I have known for the past 80 years.

    Reply
    1. iamproteus February 4, 2017

      re: your first paragraph….while opposing McConnell, etal, Schumer must be assiduous in clearly explaining the reasons behind his actions.

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  3. dpaano February 6, 2017

    McConnell is the biggest problem we have in the Congress….someone should vote him out!!! He’s been useless and continues to be useless. He’s not worth what he’s being paid, and that’s too much of our hard-earned taxpayer money!!!

    Reply
  4. Sand_Cat November 5, 2017

    Nothing like a further dose of hypocrisy from the GOP and its leaders. Are they capable of anything else at this point?

    Reply

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