The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Why Democrats Can’t Get What They Want

Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.,) speaks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 27, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: A big look at how lack of Democratic unity, not the filibuster, is what is really blocking the progressive agenda; how the outlook for Democrats keeping the House keeps getting cloudier; and a corrective dose of perspective to counter one of the gloomiest New York Times articles in a while.

What’s Really Blocking the Progressive Agenda

Pop quiz: How many times have Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block legislation this year?

[Insert Jeopardy theme music here.]

Answer: zero.

There was a little bit of talk about using the filibuster on the hate-crimes bill, but that passed without many fireworks.

Give credit to Bill Scher at the Washington Monthly for recognizing that one part of the popular progressive narrative is not actually supported by the facts:

Whatever there is to say about Mitch McConnell’s soulless approach to politics, we cannot say that today he has organized his party to filibuster everything he can. In fact, McConnell has voted “Yea” on most of the 13 successful bills, including legislation to authorize $35 billion for water infrastructure, strengthen the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute hate crimes, extend a suspension of automatic Medicare cuts, extend the pandemic small business relief loan program and waive the law that would have prevented Lloyd Austin from becoming Defense Secretary. Neera Tanden’s nomination tanked, but no major presidential nomination has led to thermonuclear war.

[Interruption from Jim: Let’s remember it was the opposition of West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin that really doomed Tanden’s nomination.]

While these bills are all minor, if Republicans were determined to make Biden’s life miserable, they wouldn’t cooperate at all. They would deny him his choice to lead the Pentagon. They would let lead flow from the tap. They would let anti-Asian hate crimes go unanswered. They would let seniors suffer Medicare cuts. They would let small businesses go under. And they would hypocritically blame Biden for all the dysfunction.

Democrats are understandably reluctant to give Republicans overt praise for helping pick some very low-hanging legislative fruit. After all, allowing Republicans to quickly gain credibility for being bipartisan makes it easier for Republicans to claim that Democrats are asking for too much when it comes to big game like infrastructure, climate, immigration, and gun control. Nevertheless, Democrats should not dismiss this Republican cooperation or lack of recalcitrance. It’s not proof that Republicans are committed to good governance, but it does mean Republicans don’t believe they can escape all blame for any unpopular obstruction. That should inform Democratic legislative strategy.

The Atlantic apparently missed the memo, because it’s on a one-publication tirade painting the filibuster as the root of all problems in American political life: “The Filibuster and the Zone of Legislative Death.” “How to Stop the Minority-Rule Doom Loop.” “How the Filibuster Killed Accountability in Congress.” “We Already Got Rid of the Filibuster Once Before.” (And that’s just the articles since March!)

We’re seeing all of these articles denouncing the filibuster when the filibuster hasn’t been used in the first four months of this year. Sometimes the dominant media narrative is set on autopilot, and then you go up to the cockpit and realize no one’s flying the plane.

The dirty little secret of American politics right now is not that progressives can’t get 60 Senate votes to pass their agenda; it’s that they often can’t get 50.

Manchin opposes statehood for the District of Columbia, the Democrats’ big voting-reform bill (HR 1), and he also opposes removing the filibuster. Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona also wants to keep the filibuster as-is and opposes raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Senators Mark Kelly and Sinema of Arizona and Mark Warner of Virginia are the remaining holdouts on the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the top legislative priority of organized labor that would effectively eliminate right-to-work laws.

On expanding the Supreme Court, forget Manchin or Sinema; Kelly, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and Tim Kaine of Virginia are also opposed or at minimum, wary. Hawaii senator Brian Schatz said that, “This is in the category of things that couldn’t muster 50 votes and probably couldn’t muster 40 votes.” Kelly’s spokesman told National Review the senator would oppose expanding the court, even if Roe v. Wade was overturned. (Also notice that Kelly, who represents a border state, lamented that Biden’s address to Congress didn’t include “a plan to address the immediate crisis at the border.”)

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer is considering adding immigration-reform proposals to Democrats’ infrastructure plan, hoping the Senate parliamentarian buys the argument that they count as a budget-related change and can thus be passed through the reconciliation process..

Ramesh wrote in the magazine a few weeks ago:

Consider some of the top progressive priorities of the recent past. A ban on assault weapons. Statehood for the District of Columbia. Expansion of the Supreme Court to make room for more progressives. Limits on carbon emissions. A $15 minimum wage. A ban on state voter-ID requirements. An amnesty for illegal immigrants. Measures to increase unionization. The Equality Act. What these policies have in common, besides thrilling progressives, is that they are not on track to become law. Some of them don’t have majority support in a Democratic Senate. None of them has the supermajority support needed to break a filibuster. And the Democrats don’t have a majority for weakening those supermajority requirements, either.

Critics of the filibuster can somewhat plausibly argue that the reason Republicans haven’t used the filibuster yet is because the really controversial stuff hasn’t come up for a floor vote yet. But the reason the really controversial stuff hasn’t come up for a floor vote yet is because the Democrats themselves are not unified, and the 50–50 split doesn’t allow them any room for error.

Passing legislation is harder than it looks from the outside. Few senators see their job as being a yes-man, even if they often do vote with the rest of their party. Every senator has local constituencies and industries that need to be protected and placated. Those of us who are outside the Democratic Party can see the contradictions within its factions clearly: blue-collar union workers against environmentalists who want to shut down existing industries; class-warfare socialists against the limousine liberals and tech billionaires; African Americans who support school choice and immigration enforcement against teachers’ unions and the amnesty-now crowd. The grand façade of “intersectionality” is a unified-field-theory effort to convince every faction within the Democratic coalition that their very real policy differences don’t matter that much, compared to fighting the menace of rich, white, heterosexual, capitalist, Christian males.

And if you read National Review, you know the GOP has its own deep divisions — traditional conservatives, social conservatives, libertarians, the chamber-of-commerce Republicans, the populists, the diehard Trump fans, the remaining wing of the Establishment, the quasi-isolationists, the few remaining hawks. . . .

But you won’t hear much about this from most political talking heads, I suspect. The message, “Both parties are hamstrung by internal divisions, making it less likely they’ll find the votes to pass their most sweeping proposals” is not exactly a galvanizing call to arms. The dominant theme of political messaging these days is, “It has never been this bad, democracy is hanging by a thread, the political party you oppose is rampaging across the land, and all will soon be lost . . . unless you donate/vote/tune in/click/call your Congressman right now.”

Meanwhile, the odds of Democrats’ keeping the House keep getting worse. Post-census redistricting will help Republicans here and there, and the retirements of Democratic incumbents from swing-y districts keep piling up: Cheri Bustos’s retirement in a slightly Republican-leaning district in Illinois; Charlie Crist leaving his seat in a swing district in St. Petersburg to run for governor; Ann Kirkpatrick’s retirement from a swing district in southeastern Arizona; Tim Ryan’s retirement from a swing district in eastern Ohio. The National Republican Congressional Committee is now targeting 57 seats.

This is what happened in 2010; go back and check.

As I mentioned on yesterday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast, what’s interesting about this weekend’s special House election in Texas’s sixth congressional district is not that two Republicans advanced to the runoff in a district that Joe Biden lost by three points in November. What’s interesting is that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democrat-aligned national political groups didn’t even bother to spend a dime.

We knew Democrats would be mostly “on defense” this cycle, trying to protect incumbents. But I don’t think we realized how little they would be playing offense; an open-seat jungle primary for a special election on a Saturday in May with 23 candidates in the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth is pretty low-hanging fruit.

ADDENDUM: Here is a healthy dose of perspective to balance out that New York Times story declaring the “herd immunity threshold is not attainable — at least not in the foreseeable future, and perhaps not ever.”

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