The Brinksmanship Society

Protesters stand in front of police officers during a protest against the death of George Floyd in Brooklyn, N.Y., June 3, 2020. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)
Far too many of our political leaders seem allergic to the concept of incremental improvement.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L ast week, Senate Democrats rejected South Carolina GOP senator Tim Scott’s proposal on police reform. Maybe you think that bill goes far enough, maybe you don’t, but consider the proposals in Scott’s legislation:

  • Full disclosure of disciplinary record when a department is considering hiring an officer from another department.
  • Requiring police departments to report to the FBI when an officer has discharged his or her weapon or used force.
  • “Strengthen the training methods and tactics throughout law enforcement jurisdictions, especially regarding de-escalation of force and the duty to intervene, providing law enforcement with new funding to do so.”
  • The legislation does not ban chokeholds, but “requires that all states and local units of government put in place tough policies severely restricting the use of chokeholds, except in situations where deadly force is authorized” and bars any department that does not institute those policy changes from receiving federal grant money.
  • Create a new federal crime of falsifying a police report to hide a civil-rights violation, with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
  • Authorizes $100 million in federal funding for police body cameras.
  • Makes lynching a federal crime.

If the House and Senate considered each of those proposals separately, each one would probably pass by a large bipartisan majority. But that legislation probably won’t get considered at all, because Senate Democrats believe Scott’s bill doesn’t go far enough. The objection that Democrats have mentioned the most is that the legislation doesn’t include a chokehold ban, that it “merely” withholds federal grant money from police departments that don’t ban chokeholds themselves.

If this legislation were enacted into law, perhaps police officers would keep using chokeholds and claiming that the situation authorized deadly force, or maybe they would keep using it and attempt to cover it up, even with the stiff penalties laid out in the bill. Or maybe police departments would conclude that chokeholds represented too much risk, both to the particular officer and to the department as a whole, and stop using them. We are unlikely to get to know if these proposals would make a difference, because congressional Democrats are unwilling to permit debate on it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is as addicted to furious, hyperbolic, negotiation-destroying rhetoric as the president is, declared, “So far [the Republicans] were trying to get away with murder, actually. The murder of George Floyd.” Democrats appear pretty confident that they can paint the GOP bill as not just an insufficient half-measure but something that is akin to a racist murder.

We can’t make any incremental progress or try any smaller-scale potential solution because those who want grandiose sweeping actions insist it must be their solution or no solution.

Yes, the president of the United States is a rhetorical arsonist who pours gasoline on the fire of any social or political conflict. He thinks of himself as a terrific dealmaker, but his negotiations rarely end in substantive grand bargains, whether it’s the government shutdown, his endless fight for more funding for a border wall, trade talks with China, or nuclear talks with Kim Jong Un.

But the president’s mentality is now widespread in Washington. Many figures in political leadership have concluded that we are in a new era where there is no reward for a compromise that actually enacts legislation. There is no upside to enacting an imperfect solution; the public has no appetite for incremental changes that move slowly and steadily toward better outcomes.

It didn’t start with Trump. I went back and checked a Peggy Noonan column about Obama’s rhetoric, shortly before his second inaugural:

What was remarkable about the president’s news conference Monday is that he didn’t seem to think he had to mask his partisan rancor or be large-spirited. He bristled with unashamed hostility for Republicans on the Hill. They are holding the economy “ransom,” they are using the threat of “crashing the American economy” as “leverage,” some are “absolutist” while others are “consumed with partisan brinksmanship.” They are holding “a gun at the head of the American people.” And what is “motivating and propelling” them is not a desire for debt reduction, as they claim. They are “suspicious about government’s commitment . . . to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat, or whether we should be spending money on medical research.” . . .

No one has good faith but him. No one is sincere but him. Doesn’t this get boring, even to him?

Some elected officials prefer to have a problem unaddressed through legislation, believing the lack of action will help their party in November — the inaction will dispirit the grassroots of the party of the majority, and outrage the grassroots of the party of the minority. No doubt Democratic challengers in the Senate are preparing campaign ads charging that after the death of George Floyd, the incumbent Senate Republicans “did nothing.” That’s not true, but that’s unlikely to matter. How many people who see a 30-second ad bother to look up the details?

Recent history should show us that November elections rarely bring a party the sweeping control of both houses of Congress and the presidency — and that when they do, the filibuster often limits what can be passed anyway. Few congressional leaders spend much time planning or even trying to get anything passed in cycles of divided government. Democrats pass symbolic bills in the House, trying to give the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fodder for messaging against a do-nothing Senate. Republicans pass little in the Senate, knowing Pelosi will never allow it through the House.

And on and on it goes, cycle after cycle. A bill that might be an imperfect solution but is still a broadly supported step in the right direction, like Scott’s, goes nowhere because so many lawmakers who see themselves as “leaders” and “public servants” are convinced that the next election will bring their unjustly delayed supermajority. Only then will they be able to get down to the business of legislating.

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