How politics and government really work, and why they don’t.
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.
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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.”