Republicans campaigning for office love to run against and demonize Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, and a powerful woman who symbolizes effective government. Why do the Democrats not demonize Mitch McConnell who as majority leader disables the Senate to defame government and advantage his party at any cost?
During the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency he obstructed all the president’s efforts to lift the nation out of its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. McConnell did so by violating “unwritten democratic norms” that political scientists tell us are essential to effective representative government.
Among these crucial taken-for-granted norms or “guardrails” are “mutual toleration,” i.e., accepting competing parties as legitimate rivals, and “forbearance,” meaning politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional power.
During Obama’s presidency McConnell weaponized the filibuster and cloture and raised their use to historic highs to prevent debate in the Senate. By 2013 McConnell had voted for over 400 filibusters, even to shut down debate on one of his own motions once he learned that Obama favored it.
After a five-man partisan Supreme Court majority awarded the presidency in 2000 to George W. Bush, angry Senate Democrats responded by blocking many of his judicial appointments. Claiming “they started it” McConnell prevented Obama’s appointments so that by February 2016 fewer than 43 percent of Obama’s nominations had been confirmed — the lowest for any previous president was 80 percent for George H. W. Bush.
By early 2016 dozens of crucial executive-branch appointments were empty due to McConnell’s obstruction, even positions in Homeland Security and Treasury involved in fighting terrorism. Congress’ reputation sunk, but in discrediting government itself McConnell calculated that Republicans gained politically as the anti-government party.
The conservative humorist P. J. O’Rourke famously quipped that “Democrats are the party that will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove crabgrass from your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then get elected and prove it.”
Large majorities of the American people want less money in politics, McConnell wants more. When Congress passed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform setting limits, McConnell fought it to the Supreme Court. Although the Court upheld most of the bipartisan reform, McConnell’s case led to Citizens United, overturning McCain-Feingold and unleashing a tsunami of “dark,” untraceable money into politics.
McConnell has already attacked the new Democratic House majority’s proposed legislation to make registration to vote and access to the ballot easier for all Americans. The package would make Election Day a federal holiday, provide for the security of elections, expose the role of dark money, and assure that states conducted elections fairly. But McConnell wants billionaires, not the American people, to decide elections.
The culmination of McConnell’s scorched earth tactics came when he ignored the Constitution, rejected Senate traditions, and refused to hold hearings on Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court after the sudden death of Justice Scalia. Yet the American people had voted twice for Obama to be president. Historians will remember McConnell as the partisan who stole a Supreme Court seat.
Obama has been rightly criticized for not alerting the public about Russian interference in our elections when he learned of it in August 2016. But when the president briefed congressional leaders privately in September, McConnell dismissed the hard evidence collected by the FBI and threatened that if the administration told the public he would denounce it as partisan politics.
Obama backed off not wanting to be seen influencing the election. (FBI director James Comey had no such qualms.) McConnell himself played partisan politics disregarding national security.
During the recent government shutdown as Senate majority leader he faced pressure from all sides including Republican senators to convince Trump to reopen the government. He responded by blaming Pelosi in a bitter partisan attack.
Meanwhile, McConnell has been rushing to confirm “Trump judges” to the federal courts at an unprecedented rate through the Senate. The groundwork for this was laid in blocking Obama’s appointments. Since the midterms the process seems desperate.
This is McConnell’s end-run around a Senate he has crippled to have the courts make policy. These 84 very conservative judges are 76 percent male, 91 percent white, and very Republican. They will be setting policy on voting rights, health care, women’s rights, unions, regulations and campaign finance for years to come. Just like the stolen Supreme Court justice.
With the Senate within Democrats’ reach in 2020 maybe they will develop, uh, you know, spine.
Ron Formisano is the author of “American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class (Illinois, 2017)