June 6, 2021


In a recent column, E. J. Dionne Jr., observed that “Republicans have made democracy a partisan issue.” This statement concisely identifies the current state of American politics: Democrats are seeking to reinforce and enhance democracy; Republicans are working to undermine democracy as much as is necessary to obtain power and to retain it indefinitely.

This situation is a difficult one for President Joseph Biden. As a candidate, he spoke often of bringing the country together, and his desire that legislation be bipartisan is well known. So is his reluctance to weaken or abolish the filibuster, the Senate rule that gives enormous power to its minority members. Can the Democrats win any significant legislative victory if they insist that the accomplishment must be “bipartisan? Likely not. Senator Mitch McConnell has made it clear that he has no intention of letting his Republican colleagues help the Democrats govern.

The value to the Republicans of McConnell’s stand is clear. Republicans are no longer a party of policy; they did not even adopt a platform for the 2020 presidential campaign. They are interested only in laissez-faire capitalization and enjoying the perquisites of power. If they can prevent Democrats from implementing the Biden agenda, they can run in future elections on a platform that accuses the Democrats of doing nothing, without having to articulate policy preferences of their own. The GOP is willing to eviscerate the legislative branch of government to gain power for itself.

Ironically, many of Biden’s objectives are widely popular with citizens generally, including Republicans. There is a certain bipartisanism here, if not in Congress. The president should accept support where he can get it.

Republicans benefit not only from the filibuster but also from structural advantages conferred by circumstances and the Constitution. Because Republican strength is greatest in rural states, the party enjoys an undemocratic advantage in the Senate. Although the voting strength of the two parties in that body is nominally equal in 2021, Republican senators represent significantly fewer citizens than do Democratic senators. Little can be done about this undemocratic representation. Adding D.C. and, perhaps, Porto Rico as states could diminish the Republican advantage, but, of course, that would require legislative action Republican senators will oppose.

Republicans do not now control the House of Representatives. They are nevertheless over-represented in the House, largely because of gerrymandering by Republican-controlled state legislatures. Ten years ago, the GOP won control of many state legislatures and was able to redistrict their states to favor their candidates. They are in a strong position to again create undemocratic districts when redistricting is next done. It is widely believed that this will allow Republicans to retake control of the House in 2022. The Biden administration would like to put an end to this unfair advantage and have districts determined by independent commissions. This, of course, would require legislative action Republican senators will oppose.

GOP treachery is on display on two election-related fronts, both of which are being justified by the bogus claim by Donald Trump that the 2020 election was stolen. (I don’t understand why anyone should take the word of someone who lied or shaded the truth more than 30,000 times while in office, but Republicans do or pretend to. “Stop the Steal” should not have been applied to Democrats but to Trump’s own supporters.) On one hand, Republican state legislatures are passing laws ostensively crafted to “protect the integrity” of elections but actually designed to make voting, particularly by minorities thought likely to vote Democratic, more difficult. On a second front, we are seeing a clownish, seemingly interminable “audit” of Arizona votes sponsored by the Republican-controlled Arizona legislature. It is unclear what the outcome of this bizarre political theater is going to be, but Republicans are determined to replicate it in other states. Whether or not this will facilitate election stealing by Republicans, at the very least, it devalues democratic elections in the public mind.

Republicans exhibit no shame whatsoever. Although not a single Republican senator voted for the most recent Covid-19 relief bill. Senators have been singing the praises of its various provisions to their constituents without, of course, pointing out that they opposed the bill and voted against its passage. This is a perverse version of bipartisanism—vote against a popular bill but take credit for its passage.

The Biden administration has an extensive agenda, and it would be unfortunate if much of it remained an unrealized hope. Parts of that agenda, however, are vital—vital to preserving our democracy and vital to preserving life on this planet as we have come to know it. The protection of voting rights and, at the very least, making a down payment on the task of avoiding catastrophic climate change are existential concerns. And they are matters that Republican senators have no interest in addressing. What are Democrats to do?

Lucy with Charlie Brown
Lucy with Charlie Brown
To begin with, President Biden needs to be disabused of the notion that anything of significance will pass in the Senate with genuine bipartisan support. Many of us thought that, as vice president, Biden had learned the lesson of Obamacare: President Obama kept negotiating with Republicans and offering concessions to attract Republican votes only to garner no GOP votes and pass a weakened bill because of his negotiations. This is exactly what is going on now with the infrastructure bill. Republicans are enticing the president repeatedly to lower his objectives. In the end, he will likely attract few if any GOP votes for a bill that is the shadow of its former self. Biden is playing Charlie Brown to Senator McConnell’s Lucy. We all know how that works out.

It is unlikely that Democrats are going to pass any significant legislation in the Senate except possibly using reconciliation, a tool of limited scope, or by eliminating the filibuster. (Despite whatever Pollyannaish view of the filibuster Senator Joe Manchin may hold, it is both undemocratic and does not work the way the senator thinks it does. See “End the Filibuster” and “More Thoughts on the Filibuster.”)

It is time that the Democrats realized that Republicans are playing for keeps, and they have no scruples. Republicans are playing to win, and Democrats must do the same. The filibuster must be ended and legislation passed, at least to protect democratic elections. If recalcitrant Democrats obstruct this legislation, Democrats must remember that classic nugget of political wisdom: when you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. Fellow Democrats must make uncoöperative Democrats an offer they can’t refuse. The survival of our democracy depends on it.

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