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Opinion The good and the bad in Mitch McConnell’s big surrender

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) defended the filibuster, a key Senate rule McConnell wants to keep in a power-sharing deal with Democrats. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Photo: Reuters/The Washington Post)
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Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has announced that he will cave in the showdown that threatened to stall big parts of President Biden’s agenda. The Senate minority leader relented on his demand that Democrats commit to keeping the legislative filibuster, and instead will allow a power-sharing agreement to proceed, letting Democrats assume the majority.

But there’s good news and bad news in what just happened. In ways that aren’t immediately apparent, both concern the moral that Democrats are taking from this episode, one that could prove enormously consequential if it is not heeded.

Superficially, it’s of course good news that McConnell backed down. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) correctly judged that McConnell would buckle if Democrats refused to rule out ending the legislative filibuster later. They’ll need to preserve that possibility as a future weapon against relentless McConnell obstructionism.

But the bad news is that en route to this point, two moderate Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — further dug themselves in against ending the filibuster at any point. Though that could change, for now it risks weakening Democratic leverage against McConnell’s use of it to frustrate Biden’s agenda.

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Which brings us to the bigger stakes lurking behind this procedural debate.

Democrats’ new ‘north star’

Schumer hinted at these stakes in an important MSNBC interview. Rachel Maddow pointed out that during Barack Obama’s presidency, Democrats offered extensive concessions to Republicans on health care, immigration and economic recovery spending, only to see them bail on compromises and instead engage in maximal obstruction.

In response, Schumer pledged that this time, Democrats will not get lured in by GOP bad faith, and vowed that Democrats will respond with procedural aggressiveness against McConnell’s all-but-certain duplication of that performance.

“Our north star has to be the legislation itself,” Schumer said. “It has to be big, and bold, and strong.”

“It’s a different time — we’ve had the most authoritarian president around,” Schumer continued. Citing the storming of the Capitol, Schumer added: “The antidote is constructive, strong action by us — by the government.”

Schumer also noted that if Democrats succeed, future “appeals to bigotry and nastiness and divisiveness” will fail, because voters will say, “No. We’re making good progress.”

“I worry about the future of this democracy,” Schumer concluded, “if people continue to be disillusioned that this government can’t do a thing to make their lives better.”

In saying these things — and Schumer said the entire Democratic caucus is united in this analysis — the Democratic leader has set the bar for his party at a very high point.

Civic renewal after Trump

After all, by Schumer’s own lights, if McConnell does engage in relentless obstruction, as we all know he will attempt, then he isn’t merely threatening to derail the Biden agenda and its ability to address the extraordinary challenges the country faces.

Nor is McConnell merely threatening to badly cripple governing so Biden takes the blame, costing Democrats in the 2022 elections, though that’s strategically important to McConnell, as Robert Reich points out:

No, what McConnell is threatening is even worse than all that. By Schumer’s analysis, successful McConnell obstruction would also continue undermining faith in democracy itself, making voters susceptible to another Trumpist demagogue.

In this telling, Democrats are now operating from the premise that hopes for restored faith in our democratic system — hopes for the defeat of Trump and the capture of the Senate by popular majorities leading to genuine civic renewal — rest less on achieving bipartisan cooperation for its own sake, and more on the scale of the program that Democrats deliver upon.

The possibilities for civic revitalization arising from the democratic mobilization that developed in response to Trump appear real. As political theorist Laura Field puts it, there are now “good reasons for Americans to have hope for the future”:

The 2018 elections were a victory for women and for our participatory democracy, and 2020 has brought increased solidarity in America around racial injustice and the country’s need for criminal justice reform. Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris won the 2020 election decisively, against an incumbent, under very difficult and unpredictable circumstances. Voters showed up to vote in unprecedented numbers, and there has been no serious evidence of voter fraud. Many Americans, it seems to me, are far less apathetic about politics right now than they were four years ago.

If Schumer and the Democratic caucus genuinely believe building on this requires delivering in a big way, that suggests a real shift in thinking, particularly if moderates are gravitating toward this idea, as Schumer claims.

But, importantly, it would appear to leave little choice but to be genuinely prepared to end the filibuster if McConnell and Republicans do succeed in stymying the Biden agenda.

Notably, Democrats plan to pursue a package of major reforms that would broaden access to voting, place tight limits on future voter suppression and counter-majoritarian tactics, and codify good governing norms that Trump tried to destroy.

This, too, will be filibustered. Its full defeat would scuttle a real opening to achieve democracy-strengthening reforms, paving the way for expanded anti-democratic tactics, a quick GOP return to power, and more dysfunction in the face of big crises. Given Democrats’ commitment to revitalizing civic faith, you’d think that would be seen as intolerable.

The good news is that Democrats appear to be taking seriously the deeper stakes in the debate over how to approach the next era of GOP procedural warfare. The bad news is that some Democrats still want to deprive their party of the full leverage they’ll need to respond to it with the force it will demand.

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