Lucy and the Football
Mitch McConnell is banking on Democratic fecklessness. He’s probably right.
Mitch McConnell can barely hide his contempt for democracy.
“A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone, sooner or later, by the next election,” the Republican Senate majority leader proclaimed on Sunday, nine days before he and his party will face voters at the polls. “But they won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”
This, of course, referred to the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett, the least-experienced Supreme Court nominee in American history, and probably the most reactionary since Robert Bork. She’d just survived a procedural motion by a 51–48 vote, all but assuring her Monday night confirmation.
You hardly need a cipher to read between the lines: McConnell knows that the president is likely to defeated and possibly eviscerated next Tuesday night, and with him McConnell’s hard-won Senate majority. If that happens, Donald Trump’s only major legislative achievement, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, will quickly be rolled back. His executive orders and federal regulatory changes will soon go, too.
There’s also a chance—small, but real—that 2020 could mark a semi-permanent realignment. True, the Senate will maintain its rural bias, providing Republicans a structural advantage, but a big enough landslide could swing legislative chambers in North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa, giving Democrats a say in shaping legislative and congressional districts for the next decade where they haven’t had one
That means Republicans are facing not merely the prospect of losing House seats this year, but losing any chance to reclaim the House for years to come. This is especially true is the GOP reacts to a loss by retrenching into a narrower, more ideologically rigid version of itself, further alienating educated white suburban voters.
Along with demographic changes and increasing urbanization, that dynamic might also dash the GOP’s White House hopes. This year, the reliably red Texas and Georgia have become something akin to toss-ups. Should they flip, either this year or in 2024, it would become near-impossible for a Republican to reach 270 electoral votes. Of course, progressives have been tumescent about retaking Texas for 15 years, and it hasn’t happened yet.
But whether Republicans are exiled to the wilderness for two years or 20—even if everything else Trump accomplished is chucked into the woodchipper—McConnell knows that he won, and he’s certain that his victory will outlive him.
That’s why he was gloating Sunday.
By hook and by crook, by bending every rule and breaking every norm, Mitch McConnell ruthlessly remade the federal judiciary. He obstructed President Obama’s nominees in an unprecedented fashion. He invented a justification for denying Merrick Garland even a hearing during an election year. He changed Senate rules to fast-track Trump’s judges. He invented a second justification for ramming through Amy Coney Barrett at record speed just eight days before an election.
And he shrugged aside charges of hypocrisy—McConnell is a guy who once filibustered his own bill, after all—and Democrats’ threats of retaliation.
With Barrett on the bench, McConnell believes his legacy is secure: Democrats are bluffing.
It’s hard to imagine he’s wrong.
I wrote recently about a central driver of governmental dysfunction—that Republicans behave like a European parliamentary party, while Democrats try to operate within a constitutional system. More ideologically coherent and politically strategic, Republicans employ maximalist tactics and do what it takes to win. With their looser and messier coalitions, Democrats are more likely to abide by norms and seek compromise.
You can’t make peace with an enemy committed to total war. That’s why Democrats spent the last six years of Obama’s presidency getting their asses kicked. That’s why McConnell is so confident.
He knows that, like Lucy pulling away the football from Charlie Brown, no matter how many times Republicans make bipartisan overtures that turn out to be obvious acts of bad faith, Democrats will keep coming back for more.
Already, Democrats have politely begun signaling a seemingly inevitable surrender. When the media asked about adding seats to the Supreme Court and/or giving justices term limits, Joe Biden hemmed and hawed and eventually announced that he would form a—wait for it—bipartisan commission to consider judicial reforms.
Maybe Biden is dodging. “Court-packing” hasn’t polled especially well, and when you’re up nine or 10 points a week out, why rock the boat? Another optimistic possibility: Biden wants the Court to know packing isn’t off the table as it considers election cases and the effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act. While FDR’s attempt to add justices failed miserably in 1937, it succeeded in getting the Court to moderate its animosity to the New Deal.
But I suspect—and I suspect McConnell suspects—that Biden is old-school enough to believe his own bullshit, that he believes Republicans will in good faith join him to “fix” a court system they’ve spent years rigging to their benefit. And when McConnell embraces a bipartisan commission in the wake of a Democratic victory, it will only be to ensure that nothing changes.
So even if voters roundly reject Trump next week, and even if progressives demand payback next year, McConnell believes he’s already won. He’s banking on Democrats’ fecklessness—being the adults in the room while he plays for keeps. In confirming Barrett, he’s called their bluff. He expects them to fold. He certainly doesn’t expect Joe Biden to deviate from the old playbook.
If Biden learned the right lessons from the Obama years, his administration could be transformative. More likely, he’ll do a hell of a Charlie Brown impression.