McConnell used to obstruct legislation; now he's obstructing democracy itself. And he speaks for the Republican Party. Senate Republicans love McConnell and he rules the roost and calls the shots. Not even Trump, who tried, has been able to get rid of him. But... he's the most hated big name politician in America-- and has been for as long as I can remember. In the most recent YouGov poll for The Economist, registered voters were asked for their favorable and unfavorable opinions of top American politicians:
Joe Biden- 49% favorable, 43% unfavorable
Nancy Pelosi- 41% favorable, 48% unfavorable
Kevin McCarthy- 30% favorable, 44% unfavorable
Chuck Schumer- 39%, 44% unfavorable
Trump- 44% favorable, 51% unfavorable
McConnell- 26% favorable, 62% unfavorable
McConnell's unfavorables cuts very widely across demographic groups-- disdain for him, you could say, is very bipartisan:
Trump voters- 50%
Dan Pfeiffer was a top Obama comms guy. This morning he commented on McConnell's pronouncement on Hugh Hewitt's radio show yesterday that his greatest achievement was stealing the Scalia Supreme Court seat and that he would block any future Supreme Court appointments by Democratic presidents if the GOP were to regain the Senate majority.
"[W]e should be crystal clear," wrote Pfeiffer, "that McConnell is elucidating an entirely new principle-- a Republican Senate will never confirm a Democratic president’s nominee to the Supreme Court. It doesn’t matter when the vacancy occurs or who the president nominates to fill it. If a Republican can prevent that appointment, it is their duty to do so. The blocking of Garland is not the exception; it’s the rule. Now that McConnell has announced his plans in true Batman villain form, the question for Democrats is how do we respond?"
One option for Democrats would be to adopt the McConnell approach. When it comes to the original McConnell rule about not filling a Supreme Court vacancy in a presidential election year, I believe Democrats are already there. For all the tilting at bipartisan windmills, I am 100 percent confident that had the Democrats been in control of the Senate in 2020, they would have prevented Trump from filling Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s seat. Even if Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema tried to undermine the process as they sought out endorsements from No Labels and applause at local Chamber of Commerce meetings, there would be enough Democrats to stop them from sinking the entire enterprise out of naive vanity.
Pfeiffer and other establishment Democrats-- even ones who recognize Manchin and Sinema as bad operators-- never warn Democratic voters to oppose Schumer picks in primaries. If you understand why it is so important to not nominate more Sinemas and Manchins this cycle for key seats in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri... please slap down Schumer's ass here and support progressives who we won't have to worry about on every single vote.
"Sadly," noted Pfeiffer, "too many Democrats are willing to turn the other cheek to McConnell’s aggression. This passivity opens the door to even more aggressive Republican attacks on democracy and paves the way for a stolen election in 2024. There is so much Democrats can and must do, but here are some specific ideas of what a comprehensive restructuring of the courts would look like:
Supreme Court Expansion: The only true way to unrig the courts is by adding two to four justices to the Supreme Court. Counter to much of the mouth-frothing of Republicans, the number nine is nowhere in the Constitution. The founders left the number of justices on the Supreme Court up to Congress and the president. There is ample precedent for changing the number. Congress made it five justices in 1801. They expanded it to seven in 1807. In 1837, they made it nine. The Supreme Court was increased to ten in 1863. When President Andrew Johnson was impeached but not removed, Congress reduced the size of the court to seven to prevent him from making lifetime appointments. Once Johnson was gone, it was changed back to nine.
Expanding the Supreme Court is more within the mainstream of American politics than Mitch McConnell’s decision to shrink the court to eight justices during a much-contested presidential election that could have ended up in the courts.
Lower Court Expansion: Congress used to increase the number of federal judges to keep up with a growing population and caseload, but politics have kept the number of judges static for a very long time. Back in January, Senator Schumer expressed openness to the concept of lower court expansion. Even without McConnell’s misdeeds, expanding the lower courts is the intelligent thing to do. Some experts believe lower court expansion would qualify for the budget reconciliation process and avoid the filibuster problem sinking much of the Democratic agenda.
Eliminate the “Blue Slip Process”: Senate rules grant home-state senators a veto over nominees for seats located in their states. In the Obama years, the Republicans abused this rule, otherwise known as the “Blue Slip Process,” to slow down the confirmation of Obama nominees even when Democrats controlled the Senate. When Trump became president, the Republicans changed the rules so that the “Blue Slip Process” only applied to district court nominees. This change helped ensure that Trump and McConnell could stack the courts with unqualified Right-Wing hacks. With Biden in the White House, Senate Democrats have maintained the Trump Era rules but resisted pressure to go a step further and get rid of blue slips altogether.
Pfeiffer came as close as he ever will to advocating for getting Schumer out of the candidate selection process: "The above is easy to do on paper. It just takes fifty willing Senate Democrats and a presidential signature. I know this seems fanciful at a time when some Democratic Senators value preserving the filibuster over protecting voting rights and would rather play bipartisan footsie on meager infrastructure bills than confront the rising tide of nationalist authoritarianism. Talking about court expansion and these other ideas can feel like screaming into the void these days. But it’s incumbent for all of us to sound the alarm and push the party to do things that may seem impossible today. McConnell and the Republicans are not going to stop trying to rig the courts until they pay a price for doing so. They act because they believe Democrats won’t react. We fail to prove them wrong at our own peril."
And, by the way, this morning Jacobin's Branko Marcetic postulated that Democrats aren't powerless to flip Manchin (and Sinema). "Biden, who was sold to the electorate as the experienced insider and consummate dealmaker who could make Washington finally work," he wrote, "has no plan to induce Manchin to switch. In fact, despite pledging to 'fight like heck with every tool at my disposal' to get the voting rights bill passed, Biden has instructed civil rights groups not to pressure Manchin in private meetings. This is because, according to The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein, and in line with the suspicions of frustrated voting rights groups, the White House doesn’t see that legislation as a priority. Rather, a senior official told Brownstein, they see the most viable path to defeating the GOP’s antidemocratic plans as passing Biden’s agenda in order to 'win elections in 2022, so we keep control of the House and Senate.' Yet that plan is also stalled for the same reason: Manchin refuses to back Biden’s infrastructure bill, demanding it have GOP buy-in. So, for weeks now, nothing has happened, as Biden engages in fruitless negotiations with Republicans who will never support his legislation, offering to cut more and more from the bill to get them on board, and jeopardizing what might very well be the last chance to do anything meaningful on climate change for a long time, as well as undermining future economic recovery."
So, much like Obama’s agenda twelve years ago, Biden’s is stuck thanks to obstinate congresspeople, and the ritual sacrificing of progressive priorities that results is all but certain to produce the same thing as last time: a midterm shellacking that leaves the country ungovernable for two more years and puts the GOP in the driver’s seat. But this scenario is even more alarming in the post-Trump world, with Republicans certain to not just further rig the rules in their favor but, at best, do nothing about the accelerating threat of climate change.
If only there was something, anything, that could be done to stop it-- but there isn’t. That seems to be the attitude of Democratic officials, who have simply given up on passing their voting rights legislation.
...[T]his kind of fatalism is strange given the stakes. Democratic rhetoric, whether it’s from Biden, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, or Stacey Abrams, is lately replete with warnings of democracy under threat and impending authoritarianism. Yet despite controlling the White House and Congress, Democrats seem to feel all their options have been exhausted.
...[There is] a range of options was available to the president for the vote-whipping operation: promises to help members fundraise, spending earmarks, recruiting interest groups to step up pressure, and offers of committee assignments (and threats of punishment).
“The White House has its own ‘candy store’ it can bestow on lawmakers’ districts or by making other policy changes through the power of the executive branch."
...It’s instructive to look at Lyndon Johnson, the master Senate legislator to whom Biden has been repeatedly likened by pundits. Johnson, who refused to water down civil rights legislation in the face of a wall of Southern obstruction and a mountain of procedural obstacles, was no doubt a singular figure, famously able to harangue and flatter lawmakers into voting his way. But he was also willing to dispense with tradition and procedure and play hardball, when the time called for it, to aggressively push his priorities.
As recounted in Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, upon ascending to the presidency and finding long odds for civil rights, tied up as they were in the Rules Committee, he took a rarely used measure that, in the New York Times’ words, “offends traditionalists”: launching a discharge petition in the House to wrench control of the bill from the committee and send it to the floor. Johnson didn’t even have to get a majority of the House to sign: once the number of signatures got close, the chairman, wanting to avoid embarrassment, did it himself voluntarily.
Modern Democrats know how to play hardball, too, to whip their own members, as they did to progressives in 2009. Five months into his presidency, Obama sidestepped his promises to leave Iraq and Afghanistan and requested more funding to escalate US involvement in the latter, hitting a wall of dozens of antiwar House Democrats. In many ways, the holdouts had the advantage, with public opinion heavily on their side.
They were soon met with a wave of lobbying from both Democratic leadership and various White House officials to get them to flip. One House member, Lynn Woolsey, charged that the White House went so far as to threaten freshmen they’d leave them hanging come reelection if they didn’t vote the president’s way. “We’re not going to help you. You’ll never hear from us again,” she recounted them saying at the time. It was enough to peel off nineteen votes, and the measure passed.
On Friday, I asked Woolsey, who represented a central California district for twenty years and played a key role in forcing the first vote on ending the war in Iraq, whether she thinks a similar threat could be made to push someone like Manchin now.
“Isn’t that what politics is all about-- give and take?” she says. “I mean, what good is Manchin to the Democratic Party if he only votes with Republicans? It’s common sense, I think. Personally, I think he’s being given too much room already.”
Woolsey says she has faith in Biden’s efforts to restore the country post-Trump. She believes he first needs to know he did as much as reasonably possible to get GOP support for his program before moving forward on a partisan basis. She notes that Biden may be applying pressure behind the scenes, but confesses some frustration that more apparently isn’t being done, pointing to Trump’s continued ability to push Republicans while no longer even in politics.
“And what are the Democrats doing to Manchin? Nothing,” she says.
One point of leverage could be the West Virginian governor’s mansion. According to the Intercept’s Ryan Grim, Manchin still longs for the office he held in 2005–2010 and considered running for it in 2020. Could the very possible prospect of losing a small but significant and disgruntled slice of the state’s Democratic vote for his gubernatorial bid be enough to force Manchin’s hand?
It’s true that the problem runs deeper than Manchin, who is being used as a human shield by other Democrats unwilling to take the heat he’s getting. Yet their very reluctance to withstand that kind of pressure suggests that flipping Manchin could prove to be the proverbial levee whose breach brings the party’s Senate members on board.
Perhaps such moves are already in the works and everyone involved is playing their cards close to their chest. But, if not, it will be difficult for voters to swallow the idea that the Democrats were simply unable to flip a far smaller number of members than they’ve managed to in times past when their agenda hinged on it. The stakes have never been higher.
Every part of the For the People Act that McConnell and the lockstep right-wingers have been blocking is popular with voters: