After Tuesday’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, we saw an instant outcry, as we often do after a mass shooting, for some kind of action on gun control. Instead of seizing the moment, Senate Democrats demurred and recessed for the holiday weekend, because they do not have enough votes in their own caucus to abolish the filibuster, and therefore 10 Republican votes would be needed to pass any gun-safety legislation. Swing vote Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., said they would reach out to their Republican colleagues, an effort that is absolutely guaranteed to fail.
Instead of seizing the moment, Senate Democrats demurred and recessed for the holiday weekend.
There is a mindset on display here that runs to the core of the Democratic Party. In the main, it seems party elites are convinced that they do not deserve to govern, and so they bend over backward to get Republican cover. For their trouble, they get kicked in the head, every time. Until the party as a whole can get rid of this idea, there is no chance of serious progress on any of the issues they claim to care about.
A more thorough example of this mindset of learned helplessness can be found in a recent article from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who recently had lunch with President Joe Biden. Republicans’ “top priority is installing candidates whose primary allegiance is to Trump and his Big Lie,” he concludes, correctly. This means “they would be willing to depart from established constitutional rules and norms and award that election to Trump or other Republican candidates who didn’t actually garner the most votes. They are not whispering this platform. They are running for office on it.”
Yet Friedman is also pessimistic about the Democratic Party, principally because of what he calls its “far-left wing.” This faction, according to him, forced the president to maintain “expansive spending for too long” and “sullied one of Biden’s most important bipartisan achievements — a giant infrastructure bill — by making it hostage to other excessive spending demands.”
Friedman goes on to suggest this threatens the only way to save the American republic: namely pandering to moderate Republicans. “To defeat Trumpism we need only, say, 10 percent of Republicans to abandon their party and join with a center-left Biden,” Friedman asserts. “But we may not be able to get even 1 percent of Republicans to shift if far-left Democrats are seen as defining the party’s future.”
On the facts, Friedman’s gloss of recent legislation is complete garbage. The “far-left” had very little to do with Biden’s big spending package in the form of the American Rescue Plan back in March 2021. While some lefty voices influenced it here and there, most of it came straight out of the Democratic Party policy establishment, which also designed the other pandemic relief packages. Similarly, the left had nothing to do with the “excessive spending” Friedman complains about. The Build Back Better plan was Biden’s own baby, containing most of what remained of his campaign platform (and thus was maybe a tenth of what Bernie Sanders would have tried to do as president).
The infrastructure package is also not nearly as important as Friedman makes it out to be. At bottom it’s a bog standard highway bill (supported by the conservative Chamber of Commerce) with a few minor goodies added on. Mitch McConnell voted for it, for Pete’s sake.
Obama was so desperate to get a big bipartisan bill passed that he was willing to trade devastating cuts to Social Security and Medicare for tiny tax increases on the rich.
But these errors are telling. Friedman assumes as a matter of almost religious dogma that bipartisan compromise is the only legitimate way to govern, and bends the facts to suit his narrative. Build Back Better must have been some kind of crazy socialist scheme because it didn’t get Republican support — and the highway bill must have been world-historically important because it did. The fact that there are no more than a dwindling handful of moderate Republicans cannot be faced, so Friedman has to pretend that 10 percent could somehow be won over by punching the Democratic left wing.
Democrats have been hypnotized by this idea for years, and it’s repeatedly gotten them burned. In 2009, Democrats made their Recovery Act stimulus roughly one-third tax cuts in an attempt to woo lots of Republican votes; they got three senators and no representatives. They then burned up months and months of a precious congressional majority letting Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) jerk them around with fake negotiations; he voted against the bill and even pushed the “death panel” lie about it. Obamacare eventually passed with zero Republican votes. Then when Democrats got blown out of the water in the 2010 midterms, Republicans promptly started taking routine government housekeeping items, like keeping the government open or raising the debt ceiling, hostage to prevent financial apocalypse.
Even after that began happening, Obama was so desperate to get a big bipartisan bill passed that he was willing to trade devastating cuts to Social Security and Medicare for tiny tax increases on the rich. (Naturally, the Republican right refused to accept even that slanted of a deal and blew it up.)
This attitude is rooted in the history of the elderly party leadership, which has barely changed personnel since the mid-2000s. Most of them came of political age in the 1980s, during the high tide of Reaganism and white backlash to the civil rights movement. They were convinced by the thundering hegemony of neoliberalism and losing the presidency three times in a row that the party had to appease Republicans and their politics to have a chance at winning — especially after Bill Clinton won two terms in the '90s parroting Reaganite slogans like “The era of big government is over.” (This process was much assisted by the fact that embracing deregulation, welfare cuts and free trade tends to lead to big campaign contributions and cushy post-office consulting jobs or buck-raking speech gigs.)
As Alex Pareene wrote some years ago, “Democrats by and large are convinced that no one actually supports their agenda, and they devote a not insignificant amount of time and political capital to explaining to their own constituents why they cannot pursue goals that a majority of them support.”
To be fair, this attitude has weakened somewhat in recent years. The American Rescue Plan was passed on a party-line vote without bothering to appeal to Republicans. The younger crop of Democrats are not nearly so wimpy as their ancient leadership. But the bipartisan fetish is not dead either.
In January’s State of the Union address, Biden could not help boasting about the bipartisan highway bill. In September last year, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi begged: “I say to my Republican friends, take back your party. The country needs a big, strong Republican Party.” She said it again recently: “I want the Republican Party to take back the party to where you were when you cared about a woman's right to choose, you cared about the environment.… This country needs a strong Republican Party. Not a cult.”
It sure would be nice if the GOP were not basically a fascist party whose leader recently tried to seize power in a putsch, where the top party conference is held in a right-wing foreign dictatorship, which party propagandists hold up as a model for the United States — or where, at the conference, the same leader shared a stage with a Julius Streicher-grade racist who has called Jews “stinking excrement.”
But that is, in fact, the Republican Party, and the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, was indeed held in Budapest, where far-right journalist Zsolt Bayer was an honored speaker. Imagining it could be otherwise, or making up comforting stories about a tenth of the party that would bolt if only Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would stop asking for health care, will change nothing. The GOP must be defeated, not appeased, and the only possible way to achieve that is if the whole Democratic Party fights together, as the party's left fought for Biden’s agenda.