Democrats Still Don't Seem to Know What Winning Looks Like
If they are prepared to be anything more than the opposition party, they sure aren't acting like it.
Photo of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer by Drew Angerer/Getty
Democrats may still be feeling some residual glow of their historic midterm victory in the House, where their party won a whopping 40 seats. Those gains mean they'll be able to provide a meaningful check on Donald Trump; they also prove there's at least some path for them to win the White House in 2020. Without the presidency, Democrats remain the opposition party, but now they're clearly an opposition party with plenty of steam behind them. The question that needs to be asked, though—before the 2020 campaign descends on us like a horrid cable news fog—is how will Democrats behave if and when they actually run things again?
If recent history is any indication, the answer is something between "passive" and "actively bending backward."
Democrats may well retain the House and drive Trump out of office two years from now, and they have a chance to win the Senate back as well, though that will be a much tougher task. But even if they run the table, they almost certainly won't get the 60 Senate seats required to pass nearly any law thanks to archaic and nonsensical filibuster rules. You may remember the filibuster—or at least the threat of one—as the thing that wrecked the prospects of "cap and trade" climate change legislation passed by the House back in 2010, or the excuse some right-leaning Democrats used to scuttle the progressive "public option" for healthcare the year before.
Nearly a decade later, the Democrats' base has similar issues on its collective mind. Should their party control both chambers of Congress and the presidency, there will be pressure for them to push for a version of Medicare for all along with some form of climate change legislation, perhaps the "green new deal" popular among left-wingers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Those sorts of bills might get out of the House, but a Republican minority in the Senate would surely veto them if they retained the power to do so.
The way forward is simple and clear: With a bare (50- or 51-vote) majority, Democrats could change the Senate's rules to wipe away the 60-vote threshold, giving them the ability to actually govern the country.
Republicans would complain, of course, but after years of obstructing Barack Obama, these complaints would be transparently self-serving. It's true that the GOP hasn't used the "nuclear option," as removing the filibuster is called, when it comes to passing laws. Maybe that's because they were worried about what Democrats would do when they got back into power, or maybe that's because Republicans didn't need to break that particular norm. They used a technique called "reconciliation" when it came to priorities like the tax cut package and the Affordable Care Act repeal, allowing them to pass bills with a simple majority. (The ACA repeal failed because key GOP defections meant it only had 49 yes votes.) The architect of all these tactics, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, wrote an op-ed praising bipartisanship after the Republicans lost the House, but that's not the sort of politics he has practiced—Republicans have utterly failed to compromise with the Democrats on key issues, and there's no reason Democrats should compromise in turn if they win big in 2020.
The catch here is that Democratic leaders have shown little appetite for this sort of hardball. Nancy Pelosi, who is preparing to re-assume the mantle of Speaker of the House, is apparently in favor of "pay-go," a rule mandating new government expenditures not increase the deficit—a principle Republicans didn't give a shit about when they jacked up the deficit with tax cuts last year. Pelosi is also reportedly weighing a rule requiring a House supermajority for bills increasing taxes on the bottom 80 percent of earners, which would effectively hamstring proposals like Medicare for all, since that would likely require non-super-rich people to pay more taxes in the name of reducing their overall health insurance spending.
But the person who would be in charge of the filibuster in a world where Democrats possess real power is likely current Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He's come under fire from the left lately for his willingness to compromise with Republicans on everything from judgeships to border security. Most concerning: Schumer reportedly promised Republicans that the filibuster would remain in place if Democrats retook the Senate.
Maybe Schumer's calculus would change if Democrats had a chance to actually make laws, which they don't with Donald Trump in the White House. But both he and Pelosi have lately demonstrated a commitment to bipartisanship and compromise that, maybe ironically, will prevent anything from being done and in the absolute worst case lead to the end of the world.
The stakes here are revealed when you imagine what will happen if Democrats don't tear down the filibuster if and when they control the government. Republicans would obstruct any actually ambitious legislation, Democrats would therefore fail to deliver on their campaign promises, and Americans would continue to think of Congress as a dysfunctional, do-nothing body—which it is, of course.
Meanwhile, climate change is continuing to get worse, and it's increasingly obvious that large-scale, drastic action needs to be taken. If Democrats let a rare opportunity to do something about it pass them by because of Senate norms or the august traditions of the blah blah blah, they shouldn't be surprised if their base abandons them in 2022. They—if not normal Americans—will deserve what happens after that.
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