But at the moment, President Biden’s chief antagonist is being rather quiet. He can sit back and watch the drama between Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and the Democratic Party, barely having to lift a finger to see most of his goals come true.
McConnell’s plan is coming together almost perfectly.
In McConnell’s perfect world, Democrats would get absolutely no meaningful legislation passed, but given that they control the White House and Congress, that’s not realistic. So he’d prefer that their ability to legislate be restricted to the once-yearly reconciliation process, which allows a bill to pass on a majority vote but restricts it to budgetary matters.
Next, he’d like to see Democrats riven by internal divisions, fighting amongst themselves over both process and policy. One of his greatest fears is that they will finally reform the filibuster, which would allow them to follow through on the agenda they ran on. Since he can’t keep them from doing so himself — all it requires is 51 votes to amend the Senate’s rules — he needs a Democrat or two to keep it from happening.
Which is exactly what’s happening, as Manchin stands firm in defending the filibuster and much of his party wants to wring his neck.
If that’s how it stays, the result would be another key part of McConnell’s plan: seeing Democratic voters grow disgusted with their party’s inability to produce genuine gains on progressive priorities, to the point that some of those voters decide that there isn’t much reason to turn out to vote in 2022.
But Republican voters will probably turn out in strong numbers, making it a typical midterm election — i.e., one in which the opposition party gains seats. Although it’s more likely that they’ll take the House, they could easily take the Senate too, putting McConnell back in charge.
If they take even one house, there will be no more real legislating for Biden. Republicans may allow budget bills to pass so the government doesn’t shut down, but they’ll try to extract brutal budget cuts in exchange, which would hamper the economy and make Biden less popular.
If they take the Senate, McConnell could keep Biden from filling judicial vacancies on any federal court, continuing the project of swinging the judiciary to the right that he began when he first became majority leader in 2015.
Meanwhile, in the states Republicans are waging an outright war on democracy, which will make it easier for Republicans to win elections even when a majority of voters would like to elect Democrats.
McConnell must hardly be able to believe his luck. He knew that throwing sand in the gears wouldn’t be easy, but now Manchin is doing it for him.
The most important result is not only that Democrats won’t get to pass the things they want — a higher minimum wage, action on climate change, expanding health coverage, guaranteeing abortion rights, addressing gun violence, strengthening workers’ rights — all of which Republicans would prefer not to see happen. It’s also that, in a broader sense, government looks ineffectual, which is an absolutely vital part of McConnell’s plan.
This is how the filibuster makes our system utterly unresponsive to the desires of the electorate: People vote for a party based on the agenda it presents, then that party is completely unable to deliver what it promised. They then grow unhappy and give the other party a chance, but that party can’t deliver either.
But this doesn’t affect both parties equally. In fact, it’s exactly how McConnell wants the system to work.
That’s because at this moment in history, the Republican Party’s substantive agenda is almost entirely negative. Democrats have many things they would like to do with power if they have it, while what motivates Republicans is primarily stopping Democrats from doing things. Other than relieving the rich and corporations of the burden of paying taxes, there’s very little Republicans want to do.
So gridlock is fine with them on substantive terms and great for them politically, because it communicates that government can’t do anything right and you might as well elect the party that doesn’t want it to do much anyway.
There’s a lot of time between now and next November. But imagine if at the start of this year when Democrats took the Senate you had asked McConnell what he was hoping for from the next couple of years.
He’d have said he wanted the Democrats to pass nothing beyond reconciliation, because the filibuster would still be intact. A commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection? Forget that, he’d have said. He’d want Democrats to be internally divided and the stage set for the GOP to take over Congress. Whereupon he could really make Biden’s life miserable.
It all seems to be going according to plan.