Go Big or Go Home

Eric Levitz of New York Magazine on the choice facing the Democratic Party:

The Electoral College now has a four-point pro-[Republican] bias, meaning that if Biden [or whoever] wins the two-way popular vote by “only” 3.9 percent in 2024, he will have a less than 50 percent chance of winning reelection, and (2) the Republican Party has grown more openly contemptuous of democracy since Txxxx’s defeat. If the GOP does gain full control of the federal government in 2024, there is a significant risk it will further entrench its structural advantages through anti-democratic measures, so as to insulate right-wing minority rule against the threat of demographic change.

To defy political gravity, and fortify U.S. democracy against the threat of authoritarian reaction, Democrats need to either rebalance the electoral playing field through the passage of structural reforms, or attain a degree of popularity that no in-power party has achieved in modern memory. If the filibuster remains in place, doing the former will be impossible and the latter highly unlikely.

The Constitution limits the Democrats’ capacity to correct the biases of America’s governing institutions. But the party could significantly reduce the overrepresentation of white rural America in the Senate by granting statehood to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and any other U.S. territory that wants it. The party could also prohibit partisan redistricting, ban felon disenfranchisement, erode practical barriers to the political participation of working-class people and immigrants, make it easier for workers to form unions, grant citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants, and pack the Supreme Court if it interferes with the implementation of these reforms.

But none of those measures are going to attract ten Republican votes in the Senate. And none of them are achievable through the budget-reconciliation process.

If Democrats do not pass structural reforms, their odds of retaining both chambers of Congress in 2022 aren’t good. The president’s party almost always loses seats in midterms. . . .

All this said, Democrats could have some extraordinary winds at their back. Biden has a decent shot of presiding over a post-pandemic economic boom. To the extent that Democrats can juice that recovery with further growth and wage-boosting measures — while maintaining the enthusiasm of their core interest groups — they may pull off the unprecedented in 2022.

But it’s hard to see how the party can do that while leaving the filibuster fully intact. Democrats will be incapable of honoring their (now decade-old) IOUs to civil-rights organizations, labor unions, and immigrant communities if they allow the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to remain in place. . . .

In the immediate term, the Democrats’ internal conflict over the filibuster will move to the backburner. Joe Biden’s COVID-relief package and green-infrastructure “recovery” plan consist primarily of tax-and-spending measures that the party can advance through the budget-reconciliation process. And Schumer has signaled that he intends to bend the rules of that process as far as the Senate parliamentarian will let him, arguing that both a ban on new vehicles with internal-combustion engines and a $15 minimum wage are actually, primarily means of reducing government spending, when you really think about it.

But once reconciliation is done, attention will turn to the large stack of Democratic-coalition priorities that are currently subject to a 60-vote requirement. It will not be easy for Schumer to tell the NAACP that his caucus values a “Senate tradition” (that is anti-constitutional, historically associated with Jim Crow rule, and less than two decades old in its present form) more than it values a new Voting Rights Act. Nor will it be easy for the majority leader to tell organized labor that it will just have to wait until next time to see a $15 minimum wage (assuming that doesn’t get through reconciliation) or collective-bargaining reform. And it might be hard for Schumer to accept that he probably won’t ever wield majority power again after 2022 because his caucus would rather maintain the GOP’s structural advantage in the upper chamber than abolish the filibuster and add new states.

For these reasons, Schumer, Senate Democrat Whip Dick Durbin, and Delaware senator (and Biden confidant) Chris Coons have all telegraphed an intention to eliminate the filibuster if McConnell obstructs their coalition’s priorities. The apparent hope is that — while Manchin, Sinema, and a few others support the filibuster in the abstract — in the heat of a legislative battle over voting rights or a $15 minimum wage, they may consent to weakening the filibuster while lamenting what Mitch McConnell is making them do.

Sinema and Manchin have repeatedly insisted that they will not “eliminate” or “get rid of” the filibuster. But there are plenty of ways to erode the Senate’s 60-vote requirement that stop short of filibuster abolition. You could create new exemptions, modeled on budget reconciliation, that allow for the passage of certain categories of legislation by simple majority vote. Or you could restore the requirement for those mounting a filibuster to speak continuously from the Senate floor. Or you could throw every Democratic priority into a reconciliation bill and then let Kamala Harris overrule the parliamentarian when she objects.

But Manchin & Co.’s cooperation with this scheme is far from assured. The Democratic Party has a vital interest in passing sweeping reforms that gratify its base and mitigate its structural disadvantages. But Joe Manchin doesn’t necessarily have an interest in the institutional health of the Democratic Party.

Our Republic’s founders famously disdained political parties. And partisanship is a pejorative in contemporary American discourse. But our democracy’s present affliction lies in the weakness of its parties, not in their strength. Were the GOP a stronger institution, the Txxxx presidency would never have happened. Were the Democratic leadership capable of formulating and enforcing a party line, the filibuster would not be long for this Earth.

While the Constitution failed to stymie the advent of political parties, it has kept them weaker than their overseas analogs. The Democratic Party is more of a loose association of elected officeholders than a coherent mass-member organization. As such, it has limited capacity to dictate terms to any of its incumbent senators, let alone to those whose job security would be enhanced by becoming Republicans. . . .

Thus the Democrats’ existential interest in eroding the filibuster remains on a collision course with its moderate senators’ aversion to power. Anyone with a fondness for democracy must hope that, against all odds, the forces of partisanship will prevail.