The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A GOP senator’s angry shaming of Mitch McConnell demands more from Democrats

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski just staged a last-ditch effort to persuade Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to reconsider his opposition to a commission to examine the Jan. 6 insurrection. The Alaska Republican appealed to her Kentucky colleague’s conscience.

In an extraordinary nine-minute session with reporters, Murkowski called on McConnell to stop placing “short-term political gain” before the need to grapple with what really happened on Jan. 6. At stake are the “principles of democracy we hold so dear,” which must be valued “beyond just one election cycle.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on May 19 said that he will oppose legislation to create a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. (Video: U.S. Senate)

It didn’t work, of course. Senate Republicans just successfully filibustered the commission. A couple more Republicans voted for it than expected, but still, virtually all voted against even allowing it to be debated.

Murkowski did a good job shedding light on the problem we now face. But here’s the thing: In the end, only Democrats can begin to solve that problem.

A lot of well-meaning efforts were made to shame Republicans into supporting the commission. The longtime companion of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who died after confronting the rioters, made a heartfelt plea to them, wondering, “Why would they not want to get to the bottom of such horrific violence?”

Similarly, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) gave a rousing speech on the Senate floor, in which he, too, appealed to Republican lawmakers’ conscience. Bennet linked the GOP refusal of a real accounting into Jan. 6 to a bigger abandonment of democracy underway among Republicans.

As Bennet pointed out, our democracy held in the face of Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, in part because a few Republicans refused to go along. But most of the Republican Party, Bennet noted, actually did go along, culminating in the mob violence.

“We had a peaceful transfer of power,” Bennet said. “But consider how close we came.”

In her comments about McConnell, Murkowski framed the stakes with similar urgency. She said the moment requires a real reckoning with the impulses that have genuinely threatened “respect for the results” of “free and fair elections” and the “peaceful transfer of power.”

This is all true. But it requires more from Democrats. Now that Republicans killed the commission, it means, first and foremost, immediately moving to an alternative.

Next up: A select committee

When I asked Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a constitutional scholar, about this imperative, he said a House select committee would probably be better than parceling out this investigation to existing committees, an idea also under consideration.

“A select committee would bring a singular focus to the task that distributing it among several different committees would not,” Raskin told me.

Raskin allowed that Republicans could still create mischief on a select committee, but said the benefits are clear. “It would create a full-fledged staff working to answer these questions,” Raskin said, “and a serious dialogue developing among the members.”

Other possibilities, Raskin suggested, include a presidential commission of some kind. But the larger point here is that Democrats will have to accept the challenge that accompanies the recognition that they will act alone to protect democracy, or it won’t happen at all.

“The Democratic Party is now literally the party of democracy,” Raskin told me, suggesting Republicans are a lost cause: “You can’t shame the shameless. At a certain point it just increases the glamour of their sinister enterprise.”

Raskin declared that it’s time for Democrats to “examine every option very quickly, and move forward.”

This also signals a need for a deeper reckoning among Democrats with the scale of the responsibility that has been thrust upon them. Democrats are mired in a debate over whether to reform the filibuster to pass sweeping legislation to expand voting rights and hobble GOP voter-suppression efforts and minority rule tactics such as extreme gerrymanders.

A true acceptance of the challenge requires grappling with hard truths that Roosevelt University political scientist David Faris laid out in an interview with Sean Illing of Vox. As Faris noted, the GOP’s counter-majoritarian advantages and tactics are interlocking in a continuing cycle of democratic backsliding:

You have anti-democratic practices at the state level that produce minority Republican governments that pass anti-democratic laws that end up in front of courts that are appointed by a minoritarian president and approved by a minoritarian Senate that will then rule to uphold these anti-democratic practices at the state level.

In this telling, GOP legislators use their power to enact voter suppression and extreme gerrymanders, entrenching their own power and tilting the political field toward House Republicans. The GOP Senate caucus, elected by a decided minority of voters, relies on the minority-rule tactic of the filibuster to thwart efforts to roll back those anti-majoritarian tactics, entrenching them further.

Looming in the background is the very real possibility that increasingly radicalized GOP state legislators might do what we narrowly avoided in 2020, and seek to substitute rogue presidential electors for those of a victorious Democratic candidate, and/or that a GOP-controlled House could try to subvert the electoral count in Congress.

Democrats must act alone

At this point, the only way anything will be done about all this is if Democrats do so on their own. This would entail moving forward with sweeping democracy reforms and, possibly, revising the Electoral Count Act to deal with the elector-sabotage threat.

Yes, the holdup is largely about Sen. Joe Manchin III’s (D-W.Va.) opposition to ending the filibuster. But as Ron Brownstein demonstrates, it’s not clear whether President Biden takes the macro-threat seriously, which would entail making serious appeals to Manchin and putting real muscle behind reform.

It’s time to give up on the theater of shaming Republicans. Instead, all this should be understood as a challenge that Democrats must rise to meet, if it is to be met at all.

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