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Opinion A Democrat erupts at Josh Hawley, and a ‘loudness’ gap is revealed

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

“Democrats need to make more noise,” Sen. Brian Schatz told me. “We have to scream from the rooftops, because this is a battle for the free world now.”

I contacted the Hawaii Democrat to talk about his extraordinary eruption at Sen. Josh Hawley on the Senate floor Thursday. Schatz ripped his Missouri Republican colleague over his hold on a senior staffing nominee to the Defense Department, even as the United States is calibrating its response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But that was the superficial cause of the eruption. The deeper catalyst was how Hawley is doing this — that his arguments are saturated in almost bottomless levels of bad faith. That’s the real topic of Schatz’s tirade, and you should watch all of it:

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) sharply criticized Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on the Senate floor April 7 for blocking President Biden's Pentagon nominees. (Video: The Washington Post)

This raises some questions: Why don’t Democrats create moments like this more often? Are there other ways of getting loud, as Schatz did here, that don’t degrade our politics and are substantively and politically productive?

What sparked Schatz’s ire is Hawley’s justification for his hold on President Biden’s nominees, particularly Hawley’s claim that Biden isn’t delivering sufficient military aid to Ukraine fast enough. Schatz also blasted Hawley’s demand that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resign over the Afghanistan withdrawal to get his holds lifted.

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One can legitimately criticize Biden as overly cautious in aiding Ukraine. But you rarely hear critics explain why Biden’s reason for this caution — the fear that Russia will discern an act of war and escalate — is wrong, and they play down all that the administration has already given to Ukraine. That lets Republicans wildly inflate the meaning of relatively narrow disagreements over the response.

Beyond this, Schatz noted that it’s absurd to use these differences as an excuse to apply a hold, especially given Hawley’s vote against a spending bill that contained billions in military aid to Ukraine sought by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. And Schatz derided the call for Austin to resign as ludicrous grandstanding.

“That is not a reasonable request from a United States senator,” Schatz fumed on the Senate floor. “And coming from a person who exonerated Donald Trump for extorting Zelensky!”

Indeed, to this day, few Republicans will fundamentally renounce Trump’s strongarming of Zelensky or Trump’s years of efforts to align our interests with Russia and against Ukraine and the West.

“Spare me the new solidarity with the Ukrainians,” Schatz said of Hawley on the floor. “Because this man’s record is exactly the opposite.”

Grandstanding and disingenuousness are endemic to politics. The tension between sordid political theatrics and the higher ideals they serve goes back to the ancients. But at a certain point, the pileup of absurdities becomes so comically ludicrous, so obviously unmoored from even the most basic standards of conduct, that it needs to be called out.

Yet we don’t hear enough from Democrats putting down hard emotional markers indicating that at moments like these, something is deeply amiss, and something unusually absurd and depraved is happening.

As Josh Marshall argues, staking out such ground at a minimum lets voters know that an honorable position exists amid the daily sludge, and that such Hawley-esque levels of bad faith are fundamentally unacceptable.

Just this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) practically snickered as he refused to say that a GOP-controlled Senate will give a hearing to a future Biden nominee to the Supreme Court.

We’re constantly told the American people hate Washington dysfunction. Yet McConnell knows he can cheerfully threaten something this obscenely destructive without fearing any political downside. But why does McConnell know this?

McConnell perhaps instinctively knows little noise from Democrats will break through to their voters, or alert the middle that something this unusual happened at all. Meanwhile, the vast right-wing media apparatus will keep up the drumbeat of wildly inflated hysteria about the threat of radical Democratic rule, which means threats like these will only energize Republicans more:

That tweet is from Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, who has long argued for a new focus on sheer amplification to avoid getting drowned out by the noise of the right.

This lopsided asymmetry is addressed in a new book by former Barack Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer. Republicans have a less varied coalition and a more developed media apparatus. Democrats have a more diverse coalition less in thrall to uniform messaging. Their voters rely more on mainstream media coverage that inevitably reflects the right-wing outrage machine’s gravitational pull.

This results in what Pfeiffer describes as a “megaphone” imbalance between the parties. You might call it a “loudness” gap.

Schatz, for his part, points to some vexing complications. Biden was elected president in part to turn down the volume in our politics, and surely moderate voters want this. But one side hasn’t gone along.

“The central selling proposition for a lot of moderate voters was that they could put Biden in place and then stop worrying about politics,” Schatz told me. Yet the noise from “the MAGA movement continues to grow.”

This obliges Democrats to raise the noise level themselves, Schatz continued, particularly when occasions such as this Hawley moment present themselves.

“Voters who pay a normal amount of attention to our politics take their cues from elected officials as to how outrageous something is,” Schatz told me. “If we don’t seem particularly perturbed,” he continued, then they’ll assume that a given standoff or situation is “no big deal.”