Time for Democrats to play hardball
For the past few years, Democrats have been completely outmaneuvered by Republicans. Don’t believe me? Consider that in the last fifty years, Democrats have nominated and confirmed only four Supreme Court Justices. Despite losing the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 elections, Republicans have appointed 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court Justices. Legislatively, we’re getting killed.
I would argue that the key moment this trend started was under the leadership of Tip O’Neill (D-MA). According to his autobiography Man of the House, then-Speaker O’Neill believed Americans would rebel against the drastic cuts in services proposed by then-President Ronald Reagan. As a result, he and the Democratic-controlled House passed Reagan’s budget package. O’Neill miscalculated, however, and the public did not have any sympathy for the poor and disabled who bore the brunt of Reagan’s cuts.
Since then, Democrats have been playing catch-up to Republicans. Even when we were in control of the government, such as after the 1992 and 2008 elections, we squandered our opportunity to achieve real change because our leadership was too timid to take on the ideological hegemony established by the Republicans.
Our failure to take on the Republican ideology has brought us to the point where we are today. Our radical inequality, low taxes on the wealthy, defunded schools, and disemboweled labor movement can all be traced back to the early 1980s, and all have progressed apace with little variation, even when the Democrats were in charge.
For example, since 1965, various bills have been sitting in Congress awaiting action that would address some of the inequality labor unions face when they try to fight employers for their membership. Despite repeated Democratic control of the federal government, this legislation or similar legislation has never passed.
This inability to deliver for average people has largely led to the disillusionment of much of the working class with Democrats. Yes, Trump’s appeal is largely based upon racism and misogeny. But if people were generally happy with how their lives are going, they would feel no need to look for others to blame.
The good news is that it appears that message has gotten through to the Democratic leadership. Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly shown herself to be a master of legislative strategy. The bigger problem for the Democrats has always been the Senate. Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has recently been calling for “a big, bold agenda.” The issues he specifically prioritizes are the climate, inequality, and democracy.
This is quite a change from the Democrats of the past who were too afraid of being seen as “too liberal.” The Democratic response has been, as with Tip O’Neill in 1981, acquiescence in the face of viciousness. Hopefully, things are about to change.
Unfortunately, this recognition is a little like closing the door after the horse has left the barn. Not only are our national circumstances dire, but unless Stacey Abrams and Georgia deliver another smashing and unexpected victory for Democrats, the Republicans will continue to control the Senate. Furthermore, historically, the party in power loses seats in its first mid-term election. As a result, unless Democrats and Biden have some impressive accomplishments to point to, Democratic power in Washington stands to get even weaker as time goes on.
Delivering big results, then, is essential for Democrats. And this has to happen at a time Democrats find themselves at a disadvantage. We are not in the position we were in after the 2008 election, when Obamacare was first passed. What can we do?
Just as Republicans have tried to think creatively to distort the electoral process, we need to think creatively to deliver upon the clearly-stated wishes of the majority of Americans. Here is one aggressive idea.
To accomplish a serious legislative agenda, Biden will need to have a Senate majority. Fifty votes will do since Harris will then be in a position to break the tie. Currently, the breakdown in the Senate is 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats, with the two races in Georgia still pending. Hopefully, the Democrats will be able to prevail in Georgia (which is certainly possible), but even so, Joe Manchin (D-WV) has signaled his unwillingness to go along with some of the liberals’ biggest priorities. As a result, Democrats likely need at least another vote in the Senate, no matter what happens.
That’s where this strategy comes in. Eli Lehrer of the Washington Monthly argued that Biden could include Republicans in his administration, just not in key operational roles. What better reason to appoint a Republican to the cabinet than to gain a vote in the Senate?
Consider the following. A number of states have Republican Senators and Democratic governors. Those states include Maine, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Kentucky and Kansas. In most cases, if a Senator leaves office before his or her term is up, the Governor appoints a replacement until the next general election. That’s how Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Martha McSally (R-AZ) ended up in the Senate. It’s worth noting that both voted to put Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court despite never having been elected.
Biden has some very attractive posts to offer ambitious Republican senators, especially in the national security arena, such as National Security Advisor, for example. For a Republican Senator, especially one who has signaled that he might not run for re-election such as Pat Toomey (R-PA) or Richard Burr (R-NC), or one who faces a particularly tough race such as Ron Johnson (R-WI), capping a political career with a prestigious appointment might be just the ticket.
Similarly, in Montana, Steve Bullock is the outgoing Governor. Just defeated by Steve Daines in the Senate race, Bullock remains a popular figure in the state. If Daines could be enticed into the administration, Bullock could potentially appoint himself to the Senate before Greg Gianforte takes office on January 4.
Furthermore, Democrats need to chop up the agenda into pieces, determining specific issues that might be able to attract a Republican vote or two. For example, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was re-elected in 2010 as an independent, having been defeated in her Republican primary. She likely faces another tough Republican primary in 2022. In 2010, she won with a lot of support from organized labor, particularly teachers and firefighters’ unions. As a result, Murkowski currently has the second highest legislative score with the AFL-CIO among Senate Republicans.
Teachers and Firefighters’ unions tend to be big players in the Democratic party coalition. As a result, they could go to Murkowski and potentially ask for her support on issues that are particularly dear to unions, such as anti-strikebreakers’ legislation, or small “d” democratic electoral reforms, such as a new Voting Rights Act. With her assistance on protecting Obamacare, Murkowski has already signaled her openness on such issues.
Given the high stakes, Democrats cannot rule out any options. Our planet faces a climate emergency, our nation a health and economic emergency, and our system a legitimacy emergency. This is not a time for playing it safe. It is a time for aggressive, creative action.