Pragmatism and the Power Primary

A while ago, I noted that most Democrats weren’t doing very well in what I called the “power primary“:

If we briefly allow ourselves to be optimistic about 2021, let’s say Democrats control the House, the presidency, and the Senate. Even in the highly unlikely events of Democrats holding sixty or more seats–and could then move past cloture–that would require every Democrat toeing the line (or picking up Republicans). The best case scenario is that the majority of the Democratic caucus is held hostage by a handful of conservative/corporate Democrats. In reality, what this would mean is that any progressive would be heavily watered down, if not outright dead.

While D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood would help (and, more importantly, should be passed on their own merits), it still doesn’t get past the need for an unattainable Senate supermajority. A couple weeks ago, Jon Favreau asked Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand if she would favor abolishing the filibuster. Her response was to defend the filibuster, arguing that good legislation should receive sixty (or more) votes. She’s not alone: every single possible or announced Democrat has either dodged the issue or defended the filibuster (including Sanders). Some have tried the dodge of ‘first we win, then we worry how we pass things’, but, as Martin Longman notes, what that attitude means without abolishing the filibuster is that just about every campaign promise being made is bullshit. Some legislation that affects budgeting might be passed through reconciliation, but only one such bill per year can passed (and much legislation would be ineligible to use this mechanism).

What this tells me is that no Democratic candidate is serious about enacting their program, whatever it might be. Democrats love being in the majority, but they don’t seem to want to wield power on behalf of their constituents. In other words, every candidate is failing at the power primary–will they use the means at their disposal–which includes ending the filibuster*–to pass progressive legislation?

While Sen. Warren has since called for eliminating the filibuster, most Democrats still don’t have a good plan to deal with it–Sanders, despite his revolutionary rhetoric, wants to keep it, which will make most of his desired legislation impossible to pass. Regardless of where candidates fall on the political spectrum, they really aren’t being pragmatic–in the true sense of the word (boldface mine):

What Democrats really need—what America really needs—is in some sense the opposite: a candidate more pragmatic than Biden and more revolutionary than Sanders. This may seem inherently contradictory, but only because of the fairly superficial way labels like “pragmatic” and “revolutionary” tend to get thrown around in our political discourse.

To understand how a candidate could carve out this new pragmatic-yet-revolutionary path, we need only look at an odd area of agreement between Biden and Sanders that illustrates the gap between their images and their actual approach to politics: Both oppose the kinds of structural reforms that will be necessary to accomplish the changes they seek, large or small.

First, the filibuster. Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues have made painfully clear that they will oppose the next Democratic president’s agenda under pretty much every imaginable circumstance. We know this. It’s how Republicans behave when there is a Democratic president… Senate Republicans will oppose the next Democratic president and use every procedural tool available to them in the process. It’s what they do. Therefore, the next time there is a Democratic president and Democratic Congress, Senate Democrats should eliminate the filibuster so they are able to govern rather than empowering an extremist minority.

And yet Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have both said they would leave the filibuster in place…

The current activist conservative Supreme Court is poised to strike down any meaningful new progressive legislation, in addition to continuing to dismantle the progress we’ve made in the past. It was stolen by the Republican party for precisely this purpose, most egregiously when the GOP manipulated the size of the court by capping it at no more than eight members as long as a Democrat was president, then quickly confirming a ninth when Donald Trump took office

Republicans have nominated 15 of the last 19 justices despite losing the popular vote in six of the last seven elections; four of the five conservatives currently on the Court were nominated by Republicans who became president after losing the popular vote. It’s no surprise, then, that the Court’s conservatives share the GOP’s preference for minority rule. An illegitimate, stolen Supreme Court is in urgent need of structural reform, before it renders any progressive change dead on arrival and fair democratic elections an impossibility.

Giving Mitch McConnell veto power over your agenda isn’t pragmatism, it’s surrender. And there’s nothing pragmatic about refusing to pursue structural reform of a stolen, un-democratic Supreme Court that will likely strike down your agenda and further entrench minority rule at a moment when the nation faces a range of policy emergencies like climate catastrophe.

Nor can one claim to be a revolutionary while proposing to leave in place the very un-democratic structures and systems that make political revolution necessary. Winning and turning out new voters is a worthy effort, even a necessary one, but if it isn’t accompanied by democratic reforms, it’s no revolution—it’s just an effort to play more successfully by unfair rules.

While there are some Democrats who are beginning to understand the absolute need to pack the Supreme Court (though no one is talking about the federal circuit courts), it’s still not a priority for Democrats (boldface mine):

The Supreme Court will probably overrule decades of progressive precedents and strike down the next Democratic president’s reforms. You would not know this from watching the 2020 Democratic presidential debates. Wednesday’s showdown in Atlanta, the fifth so far, did not include a single question about the courts. Earlier debates allowed for brief discussions of the Supreme Court, but every candidate dramatically underestimated the threat it poses to the Democratic Party. Both the candidates and the moderators appear to be astonishingly naïve about the judiciary’s lurch to the right under Donald Trump. And it is pointless to discuss the Democrats’ ambitious proposals without explaining how they are going to survive at SCOTUS…

It isn’t just progressives like Warren who have reason to fear SCOTUS. Self-styled moderates like Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg should also be gravely worried. On Wednesday, both candidates endorsed H.R. 1, a sweeping elections bill passed by the House of Representatives. Buttigieg singled out the measure’s requirement that each state adopt an independent redistricting commission to draw congressional lines. Even if Democrats made H.R. 1 the law, however, this anti-gerrymandering provision may well fall. The Supreme Court seems primed to find that Congress’ authority to regulate federal elections does not permit it to mandate the creation of 50 state redistricting commissions. Having already refused to police partisan gerrymandering, the conservative justices could soon bar Congress from stepping in and protecting voters from this scourge of democracy…

It’s not that Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, Warren, and the gang don’t understand that the Supreme Court is a problem. It’s that they appear utterly delusional about the extent of the court’s threat to Democratic policy, and short on solutions to the peril they face…

The Supreme Court is more conservative than it has been since the days when it tore down the New Deal. At future debates, every time a candidate touts some proposal, the moderators should ask what they’ll do when the courts strike it down. If the candidate has no answer, it’s safe to assume that plan will be dead on arrival.

All the arguments about payment mechanisms for Medicare for All–or even the tepid incrementalism espoused by Biden and Buttigieg–are nothing more than intellectual masturbation if Democrats aren’t serious about filibuster and judicial reform. Nothing will happen, people will get frustrated, and then we will have President Tom Cotton in 2025, executing people in basements.

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