Politics & Policy

The Democrats Have No Answer for Mitch McConnell. Good.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 7, 2019. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
If a Democrat wins the White House, McConnell will stop all his or her liberal plans.

After two debates and countless promises of sweeping political reform, the most important question of either night was asked to the leading Democratic contender, who claims to have the most comprehensive and realistic political plans of all the candidates. Moderator Chuck Todd asked Senator Elizabeth Warren, “Do you have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell?”

Her response was immediate and confident. “I do,” she said. The crowd cheered. And what was that plan? After some generalized filibustering, she laid it out: “We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.” No, really, that was her plan. You can watch the exchange here — oddly celebrated by the “Team Warren” Twitter account:

The very next day, as if the debate had been engineered to show his strength, McConnell was instrumental in strong-arming the House Democrats into passing the Senate’s version of a bill designed to ease the crisis on the border. The New York Times headline said it all: “House Passes Senate Border Bill in Striking Defeat for Pelosi.”

Oddly, some held him responsible for failing to repeal Obamacare while Obama was president. If D.C. was the swamp, then — in the memorable words of insurgent West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship — McConnell was the “swamp captain.”

He received no credit for maintaining enough Republican Senate discipline to block virtually every significant Obama legislative initiative after the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority. He received virtually no credit for getting the Obama administration to agree to make the majority of the Bush tax cuts permanent. He received only grudging credit for blocking Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and preserving a chance for a conservative Supreme Court majority.

But now? I’d like to hear anyone make the argument that McConnell isn’t one of the most effective legislative leaders in modern American history. Republicans know it, Democrats know it, and this brings us to a challenge so profound that it lends an air of unreality to the entire Democratic presidential primary.

It’s certainly possible for a Democratic candidate to beat Donald Trump. In spite of the strength of the economy, his polling numbers are in dangerous territory for an incumbent. But unless the Democrats can beat Trump and unseat Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader and persuade a majority of the Senate to ditch the legislative filibuster, none of their sweeping plans will become law.

That means no Medicare for All, no free college, no decriminalization of border crossings, no sweeping loan forgiveness. The Democratic stampede to the left doesn’t just enhance Trump’s reelection odds, it preserves McConnell’s power. There will be Americans who will choose to vote against Trump and against Medicare for All. They’ll disapprove of Trump but also want to block open borders. Those voters will vote to retain a Republican Senate.

And make no mistake, even though more Republican Senate incumbents are up for election than Democratic incumbents, the map still isn’t that favorable for the Left. Unless Alabama primary voters lose their minds (again), Doug Jones won’t face Roy Moore in November. Alabama will vote red again, and that means Democrats would have to pick up four seats to create a Senate tie and take control if the Democrats win the White House.

It won’t be easy. Don’t just take it from me. Take it from Vox:

The road to a Democratic majority in the Senate, even a bare one, won’t be easy.

“What makes this map very deceiving was in 2018, Democrats had to defend five seats in states Trump won by 19 points or more,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate expert at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “In this case, there’s no Republican sitting in a state that Clinton won by more than 5.”

Every single presidential election we hear the same thing: “This is the most important election of our lifetimes.” In the age of negative polarization, we’ve added an ominous “and” — “and if we lose, America will be over.”

But for 2020, this argument is fundamentally wrong. Unless a wave builds to such intensity that it topples the president, the Senate, and the filibuster, the Democratic candidates aren’t running to create Democratic socialism, they’re running for small-ball legislative compromises, regulations, and executive orders that would face immediate court challenges (and be immediately repealed by the next Republican president), and to appoint the few judges who could make it through Mitch’s gauntlet.

That’s what gridlock looks like in a nearly evenly divided United States, and if that gridlock can force the real work of governance back to state and local governments, then gridlock can be healthy. It’s time for Republicans of every faction to acknowledge the truth — in the face of an uncertain presidential election, the GOP needs Mitch McConnell on that wall. So long as he retains his majority, the Democrats have no plan for “Cocaine Mitch,” and that is a good thing indeed.

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