A Failed Political Class
The past four years of the Trump presidency has exposed the almost existential flaws in our constitutional system. But, by any measure, 2020 has been an especially horrible year. The challenges of COVID-19 have clearly exposed the structural inequalities in our country and in our economic system. Many of our lowest paid and most abused workers have turned out to be providing essential services. The enormous inequities in our health care system have contributed to the rampant spread of the virus. But perhaps more than anything, the last year has exposed the almost utter failure of our political class.
Today, Trump is plotting a coup from inside the White House, abetted by advisors that the Washington Post describes as “a pardoned felon, adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, a White House trade adviser and a Russian agent’s former lover”. The twice-admitted traitor Mike Flynn, who was working and being paid by Turkey when he was Trump’s NSA, is in the White House advising the President to declare martial law. Trump is also plotting with co-conspirators in the House and Senate as well as with VP Mike Pence in order to challenge to January 6th congressional certification of the Electoral College. And he has called out his armed militias to come to DC and go “wild” on the day of that vote. He has pardoned his felon conspirators with Russia, his fellow corrupt politicians, and fellow perpetrators of crimes against humanity, signaling to current military personnel that they will be protected if they support his coup.
Bill Kristol reports that Trump’s recently appointed political cronies in the Department of Defense are “trying to figure out, in coordination with people in the White House, ‘how to make things happen'”. In addition, Trump is temporarily suspending transition briefings for the Biden team by the Department of Defense as we suffer possibly the greatest national security breach in US history. According to the Washington Post, Trump “has told advisers not to share information with Biden’s team that could be used against him” and there are real concerns that the administration is engaged in a pattern of document destruction.
Meanwhile, over 3,000 Americans are dying every day from COVID. Around 330,000 have already died and, at minimum, probably another additional 40,000 died due to pandemic-related disruptions. The fact that the United States has had the worst pandemic response than most of the world is due to the administration’s incompetence, corruption, magical thinking, anti-intellectualism, and simple lack of concern. The administration managed to pit states against each other in a fight for medical supplies and never mounted a national testing program. Republicans turned mask-wearing and social distancing into a culture war issue, holding super-spreader events across the country. Since June, over 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty and 50 million currently suffer from food insecurity. And now, because of Trump’s refusal to sign even this clearly insufficient COVID/government funding bill, 10 million Americans will lose at least one unemployment check and untold numbers face eviction.
Congressional Republicans are by and large content with this state of affairs, supporting Trump’s coup attempts either openly or in complicit silence. For Senate Republicans, their biggest objection is to the President’s effort to challenge the certification of the Electoral College on January 6th, primarily because that may actually force them to choose between Trump and democracy. Of course, they had that choice last January during impeachment and they unanimously, bar one, chose Trump.
But, in many ways, Democratic leaders have failed us as well, though not nearly on the same scale as Trump and the GOP. Facing the most corrupt administration in modern history, Pelosi and House Democrats chose to largely ignore the ongoing crime spree, focusing on passing lots of excellent messaging bills that went nowhere in Mitch McConnell’s Senate. With two of the most corrupt GOP Senators standing in the way of Democratic control of the Senate, imagine how much better positioned Ossoff and Warnock would be if there had been a relentless pursuit of even a handful of administration corrupt acts over the last two years.
Pelosi took a similarly cautious tack on impeachment. She shut down committee chairs interested in pursuing the threads of the Mueller investigation and the one real hearing that got held, with Michael Cohen, created evidence of tax, bank, and insurance fraud that NY authorities are now pursuing. It was only Trump’s traitorous attempt to blackmail Ukraine into investigating the Bidens that forced Pelosi’s hand on impeachment. And, even there, she created the narrowest impeachment possible and pretty much dropped the issue after Senate acquittal.
One can also argue with Pelosi’s tactics in regard to the COVID relief bill. Perhaps most questionable was the decision to dismiss the $1.8 trillion deal with Mnuchin and then settle for the $900B compromise in return for nothing. As Adam Jentleson rants, “Been arguing for a week on here with folks who assured me that there was no possible way that Trump’s endorsement of a bigger bill could be used as leverage and that therefore it was OK for Dem leaders to abandon the 1.8T baseline, reset it at 900B and *then* give away state aid…That was a climb down of nearly $1T, from the 1.8T Pelosi had established with Mnuchin…One big excuse offered to explain why Dem leaders couldn’t get a bigger bill was that the Trump/Mnuchin endorsement of a 1.8T deal with $1,200 checks was supposedly not real leverage, therefore Dem leaders should be excused for resetting the baseline at 900B in return for nothing”. It was clear that McConnell could not and would not pass the $1.8 trillion bill but Pelosi never forced him to take that vote. And now it is only Trump’s tantrum about relief checks that may force the vote that Pelosi would not.
Forgoing the $1.8 trillion deal was part of broader strategic mistake to negotiate with Mnuchin alone, absolving McConnell of any responsibility for what then emerged. While some may disagree with that assessment, the reality is that Democratic leadership is now cheering a bill everyone knows will be insufficient and will require more action early in the Biden administration while wistfully pretending that McConnell and the GOP will not obstruct that effort once the Georgia elections are over. Everyone knows that McConnell will once again put a gun to the heads of the American people and once again force Democrats to settle for something insufficient under the threat of getting nothing. This has been the Republican game ever since Newt Gingrich shut down the government in the 1990s and Democrats have still not figured out how to respond.
Ironically, Pelosi has largely ruled the House over the last two years in much the same way that McConnell has ruled the Senate. As Alexander Sammon writes, “More and more, in recent years, House Speakers have ruled imperiously, compared to a bygone era when committee chairs held much more power. But Pelosi’s pandemic-era control marks a dramatic departure from the regular operation of the House. Historically, members below the very top rung of leadership have played at least some role in governance. This House of one represents a reductio ad absurdum of the recent trajectory, where the rank and file just doesn’t matter except as a hand to press the electronic voting button”. That kind of autocratic approach has resulted in one of the Democrats most popular progressive members being denied an important committee post simply because she dared to question the House leadership’s electoral strategy.
The result such dictatorial leadership in the House and Senate is that massive bills like the $2.3 trillion combined COVID relief and government funding bill get negotiated largely in secret and then dumped on members to vote on before there is even time to read the bill. Such a process actually provides the leadership with even more power even if it can have its advantages. Jon Chait, noting that $2.3 trillion bill contains “a huge package of energy reforms that will result in major greenhouse-gas reductions”, writes, “The larger lesson here is that, in the modern era, constructive legislation is still possible — as long as the issue stays below the radar…negotiating issues privately, dumping them into a giant must-pass bill, and passing the whole thing within hours short-circuits the demagoguery cycle”. That is not a resounding endorsement of democracy. Of course, the process also produces horrendous results such as the $120 billion giveaway to the rich by not treating all of PPP loan forgiveness as income. As Mark Joseph Stern retorts, “In a healthy democracy, the legislature would not take votes on 5,000 page bills released a few hours earlier. In a healthy legal academy, law professors would spend more time examining the flaws in the Constitution that led to this dysfunction and less time deifying its authors”.
The larger issue for Democratic leaders is their continued unwillingness to accurately portray the Republican party for what it is. Even back in 2012, when presented with the Republican platform of cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans while trying to end “Medicare as we know it”, voters refused to believe that any politician or party would actually run on those policies. Republicans hide their actual policies with outright mendacity, for instance constantly and brazenly lying that they will protect pre-existing conditions even as they support the legal attempt to dismantle the ACA. As Brian Beutler says, “The Republican Party’s core rottenness—its dishonesty, corruption, pettiness, racism—is the defining political fact of our time”.
In addition, the aftermath of this election has only confirmed the fact that the Republican party no longer believes in democracy. As Chris Murphy declared, “Right now, the most serious attempt to overthrow our democracy in the history of our of country is underway. Those who are pushing to make Donald Trump President, no matter the outcome of the election, are engaged in a treachery against their nation…For much of the last four years, we thought the problem was that Republicans knew what the right thing was, but they just didn’t do it because Trump was so scary. I think this moment is showing us that there are a whole lot of Republicans who believe this nonsense…This is a party that has a whole bunch of enemies of democracy inside its top ranks. That’s bone-chilling”.
Yet Democrats continue to seek out “reasonable” Republicans to try and make deals with. They do not exist. Beutler continues, “One of the conceits of modern American liberalism, now badly outmoded, is that bipartisan consensus, and consensus among stakeholders, are key to building public trust and durable policies and institutions. It’s a pleasing notion. But it only works if we assume that all parties will conduct themselves in good faith. A president who promises to bring the parties together can succeed if both parties are amenable to compromise. When the opposition party is steeped in bad faith, though, he merely hands his opposition the power to turn him into a failure and a promise-breaker. A party that prizes minimizing conflict over partisan policy victories likewise hands an unscrupulous opposition the power to derail its agenda”.
Biden is delusional if he thinks that Republicans, who refuse to even acknowledge his victory and are so fearful of their own base that they are afraid to even have to vote to confirm the result of the Electoral College, are suddenly “going to feel they have much more room to run and cooperate” when he is in the White House. Even if the “several” GOP Senators that Biden claims have said want to work with him will not be enough to overcome any filibuster. By pretending otherwise, Biden essentially does a disservice to his own administration and the country as a whole. As Adam Jentleson writes, “If it’s true that no good deal can ever be struck with Republicans because they don’t care about human suffering, which is the prevailing defense of the COVID deal, then it’s incumbent upon Democrats to devise a political strategy that takes this reality into account…The current strategy of spending months validating Republicans as good-faith negotiators on the front end – including going to their press conferences and praising them as legislators – but then trying to blame them as bad-faith villains when the deal falls short is inadequate”.
To be clear, this is not a “both-sides” critique. The Republican party is an anti-majoritarian, anti-democracy party. They had no policy platform this year other than simply “keep us in power”, no agenda for the next four years other than “keep us in power”. As Steve Schmidt describes it, there is now only the Democracy party, comprised of the entire Democratic party and Biden Republicans, and the autocratic Republican/Trump party. And Democratic leaders do both rank and file Democrats and the country a disservice by pretending that Republicans are actually interested in governing for all Americans. That doesn’t mean that Democrats won’t have to make deals with Republicans when the GOP controls certain levers of government. But it does mean describing the party as it is. And by doing so, Democrats will make it much harder for Republicans to put a gun to the head of Americans and then count on Democrats to take something insufficient under the threat of nothing as McConnell has done with COVID relief.