A Silver Lining, Perhaps

The arguments Democratic senators made last night to reform the filibuster, e.g. by returning to the “talking” filibuster that can delay legislation as long as the minority keeps arguing against it, meaning that a bill can’t be stopped in its tracks by email, were so good that the refusal of two “Democratic” senators to vote for reform is either the result of stupidity or base motives.

If they truly believe the filibuster fosters bipartisan solutions, they are stupid. If they think the country will be better off with Republicans having total electoral control in various states, possibly resulting in the return of the worst president in history — whether he wins or not — they are horrible people. (We shouldn’t rule out the likelihood that they’re both stupid and horrible.)

Anyway, Paul Waldman of The Washington Posts looks on the bright side:

For years, Democrats have been waiting for Republicans to have their “epiphany,” to realize that scorched-earth politics and implacable opposition to anything a Democratic president might suggest are not good for the country. The epiphany has arrived — but it’s the Democrats who have finally come to understand reality, and are prepared to act accordingly.

This might seem like a moment of Democratic defeat [it sure as hell does]. But it could be a turning point, one that leads to more progress in the future.

At his Wednesday news conference, President Biden was asked whether he had over-promised and what he planned to change in the remainder of his term. In response, he said, “I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done.”

Lots of people anticipated it — it has been a topic of debate for years, and Biden took a lot of criticism in the 2020 campaign from those who thought his claim that he could persuade Republicans to work with him was disingenuous or naive. Every reasonable observer knew that [Republicans] would approach his presidency with the same strategy it used with Barack Obama: Oppose almost everything the president proposes, and do everything in the party’s power to make him fail.

But what matters at the moment isn’t whether Biden ever believed [Republicans] would act differently. It’s that he seems ready to stop pretending that a dawn of bipartisan cooperation is about to break.

Now consider what happened that night, when Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) joined with every Republican to shoot down a rules change that would have allowed two voting rights bills — bills Manchin and Sinema claim to support — to receive an up-or-down vote.

It was absolutely a defeat, for Biden, for his party, and most of all for voters. But it also represented a significant shift within the Democratic Party. That’s because every single Democrat apart from Manchin and Sinema supported setting aside the filibuster.

A variety of factors led them there. The obstructionism and radicalism of today’s [Republican Party] certainly played a part. Perhaps just as important, we’ve had our first real, detailed debate about the filibuster, and all the arguments in its defense were revealed to be so preposterous that it has become almost impossible for any honest person to oppose reforming it.

As Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a more moderate Democrat, explained in a passionate plea, the Senate has adjusted filibuster rules to allow majority votes more than 160 times, including for such pressing matters as “approving compensation plans for commercial space accidents.”

So with two exceptions, every member of the Democratic caucus, from progressives such as Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) to moderates such as Jon Tester (Mont.) and Angus King (I-Maine), agreed that the filibuster has to change here as well.

There was nothing like that kind of unanimity even a year ago. That glass is now 48/50ths full.

And the defeat of these voting rights bills, which is extremely painful for both Democratic legislators and their party’s base, might actually hasten the filibuster’s demise.

As I’ve noted, in every state where Democrats have a chance to take a Republican Senate seat, all Democratic primary candidates favor scrapping the filibuster. That includes both moderates and progressives. Though there are many things that divide, for instance, Rep. Conor Lamb and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, they agree the filibuster should go.

Democrats, including the president who has spent so much time insisting that he can achieve bipartisanship, are simply done waiting for Republicans to see the light. The next step is for them to get mad enough to do something about it.

Which might happen. Even though the most likely outcome in 2022 is a Republican sweep (following the usual midterm election pattern), Democratic voters can and should be angry enough about the death of these voting bills — among many other things, including the Supreme Court’s likely overturning of Roe v. Wade this year — to organize, register and overcome Republican voter suppression to get to the polls in November.

If you’re a Democrat and you’re mad at Manchin and Sinema — and you should be — the answer is to make them irrelevant by electing a few more Democrats to the Senate.

Besides, they’ll probably be around for only a few more years. Manchin might not run for reelection in 2024, and if he does, he’ll probably lose, as long as Republicans find a halfway decent candidate in deep-red West Virginia. And after this, Sinema couldn’t win a Democratic primary for dogcatcher; if she runs again the same year, she’ll face a strong primary challenge [the latest poll shows she has an 8% — eight percent — approval rate among Arizona Democrats].

So it’s not hard to imagine the Senate considering voting rights again in the near future — and this time, there will be 50 votes to pass it.

Thanks to Manchin and Sinema, and to Republicans who remain just what they’ve been all along, Democrats can no longer afford to delude themselves about how politics works today. And for a change, they all know it.

I Guess It’s a Little Thing, But This Other Thing Is Big

The U.S. has two major political parties. One is older than the other. Which one?

You might think it’s the Republican Party. It’s not. The Democratic Party was founded in 1828, when Andrew Jackson was running for president. It’s the oldest active political party in the world. Jackson was the first Democratic president, which is why the party is occasionally called the “Party of Jackson” (even though Jackson might not be a Democrat today).

The Republican Party wasn’t founded until 1854. The party’s main thrust was opposition to slavery. It’s sometimes called the “Party of Lincoln” because Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president — even though Lincoln was a liberal or progressive for his day, not a conservative or reactionary (the Republicans began to move right around 1912 and never looked back).

It bugs me that news people frequently refer to the Republican Party as the GOP. Many Americans don’t know what “GOP” refers to or stands for. It’s “Grand Old Party”, even though the Democratic Party is older. In fact, the GOP acronym was first used to refer to the Democratic Party. After the Democrats dropped it, the Republicans picked it up.

So the Republican Party isn’t old compared to the Democratic Party; news people don’t have a friendly little acronym for the Democrats; and worst of all, when the GOP does something especially bad — like opposing voting rights in Congress and across the country — a significant number of people don’t even realize it’s the Republicans at work. That’s why I try to avoid using “GOP”.

That was the small thing. Here’s the big thing, as chronicled by Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post. Her article appears on the paper’s digital front page as “Dear Media: Stop Giving the GOP the Benefit of the Doubt”: 

The Republican Party has a reliable — albeit inadvertent — ally in the mainstream media. The latter remain all too anxious to make the authoritarian and often blatantly racist party seem “normal.”

When Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race in Virginia, the media gobbled up the GOP talking point that he had cracked the code for the post-T___ era. See how clever he was to keep his distance from former president D____ T____? The coverage rarely scrutinized his positions, such as his potentially disastrous proposed tax cuts or his aversion to mask mandates, a critical part of Virginia’s school reopening.

The story line was set: Democrats blew it by closing schools; Youngkin was “smart” to pose as a normal Republican. As The New York Times cooed: “Many conservatives see his campaign as providing a template for how to delicately embrace T____ism in blue states.”

Delicately? Youngkin was always serious about the MAGA camp’s culture wars, as he made abundantly clear on day one of his governorship.

Shortly after his inauguration, Youngkin promptly banned critical race theory from Virginia curriculums, even though it isn’t taught in schools, thereby flaunting his willingness to cater to White grievance in a state infamous for its resistance to desegregation. He described what would be removed from school curriculum: “All of the principles of critical race theory, the fundamental building blocks of actually accusing one group of being oppressors and another of being oppressed, of actually burdening children today for sins of the past.”

Listening to Youngkin, one might never know that slavery and Jim Crow are woven into the Commonwealth’s history and are relevant to ongoing racial disparities in wealth, education, health and homeownership. His airbrushed version of history is the standard MAGA effort to cater to White supremacists and wreak havoc in the schools. If only the media had taken him seriously during the campaign.

And just as Democrats predicted, Youngkin swiftly imported Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war on mask requirements, preventing schools from issuing such mandates. Several school boards promptly decried his edict and said they’d go on protecting teachers and students. It seems Youngkin duped voters and the media who wanted to believe there was a normal alternative to MAGA Republicanism.

The media’s predilection for portraying Republicans as tactically brilliant is indicative of their preference for treating politics as a game. They denude their coverage of any qualitative judgment that would inform voters that the party’s “cleverness” is lying, plain and simple.

This refusal by the media to render judgment on the GOP’s cult leaders has gone on for more than six years. Despite replete evidence of T____’s inability [note: refusal] to distinguish truth from fiction, his self-image of grandiosity and his fixation on conspiracy theories, the mainstream media failed to characterize T____’s conduct as abnormal.

Take his bizarre rally in Arizona on Saturday, where he rambled incoherently, insisting, for example, “The left is now rationing lifesaving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating . . . White people to determine who lives and who dies. If you’re White, you don’t get the vaccine, or if you’re White, you don’t get therapeutics.” This is a loony lie. . . . 

No reasonable person could hear this and not conclude he is unhinged. And he has been sounding like this for years. Yet the media largely covered the rally as run-of-the-mill politics. One New York Times headline: “T____ Rally Underscores G.O.P. Tension Over How to Win in 2022.” Meanwhile, Politico intoned: “Spread out in a sea of red MAGA hats and T-shirts emblazoned with ‘T____ won,’ the former president’s fans roared in support as he aired complaints about the election and made swipes at the Biden administration.”

Is that what he was doing? “Airing complaints”? Or was he making positively ludicrous claims, like the guy on the street corner hollering about the end of the world? Anodyne descriptions that slot T____’s antics into “politics as usual” mislead news consumers. To make matters worse, interviewers avoid asking Republicans how they can pledge loyalty to someone so bonkers.

Certainly, the media should avoid rendering a psychiatric evaluation . . . but they routinely refuse to convey the abnormality on display before them. This is “the emperor has no clothes” on steroids.

Unflinching, brutally honest coverage would describe T____’s behavior accurately, including his syntax and preposterous lies. It would concede this conduct would be disqualifying for any business executive or even a small-town mayor. The media are compelled to level with voters: The two parties are not equivalent, in part because one treats its crackpot leader like a messiah. . . . 

Never Trust a Politician Who Loves Coal and Drives a Maserati

The moderate Republican senator from West Virginia who calls himself a “Democrat” says he cannot vote for the Build Back Better Act for a few silly reasons he borrowed from the 50 immoderate senators who openly admit they’re Republicans. This was after months of negotiations. The White House is royally pissed. Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued this statement soon after Manchin spoke on the Republican news channel:

Senator Manchin’s comments this morning on FOX are at odds with his discussions this week with the President, with White House staff, and with his own public utterances. Weeks ago, Senator Manchin committed to the President, at his home in Wilmington, to support the Build Back Better framework that the President then subsequently announced. Senator Manchin pledged repeatedly to negotiate on finalizing that framework “in good faith.”

On Tuesday of this week, Senator Manchin came to the White House and submitted—to the President, in person, directly—a written outline for a Build Back Better bill that was the same size and scope as the President’s framework, and covered many of the same priorities. While that framework was missing key priorities [especially climate-related, I bet], we believed it could lead to a compromise acceptable to all. Senator Manchin promised to continue conversations in the days ahead, and to work with us to reach that common ground. If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.

Senator Manchin claims that this change of position is related to inflation, but the think tank he often cites on Build Back Better—the Penn Wharton Budget Institute—issued a report less than 48 hours ago that noted the Build Back Better Act will have virtually no impact on inflation in the short term, and, in the long run, the policies it includes will ease inflationary pressures. Many leading economists with whom Senator Manchin frequently consults also support Build Back Better.

Build Back Better lowers costs that families pay. It will reduce what families pay for child care. It will reduce what they pay for prescription drugs. It will lower health care premiums. And it puts a tax cut in the pockets of families with kids. If someone is concerned about the impact that higher prices are having on families, this bill gives them a break. [He also referred to the deficit and energy policy.]

. . . Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word.

In the meantime, Senator Manchin will have to explain to those families paying $1,000 a month for insulin why they need to keep paying that, instead of $35 for that vital medicine. He will have to explain to the nearly two million women who would get the affordable day care they need to return to work why he opposes a plan to get them the help they need. Maybe Senator Manchin can explain to the millions of children who have been lifted out of poverty, in part due to the Child Tax Credit, why he wants to end a program that is helping achieve this milestone—we cannot.

We are proud of what we have gotten done in 2021: the American Rescue Plan, the fastest decrease in unemployment in U.S. history, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, over 200 million Americans vaccinated, schools reopened, the fastest rollout of vaccines to children anywhere in the world, and historic appointments to the Federal judiciary.

But we will not relent in the fight to help Americans with their child care, health care, prescription drug costs, and elder care—and to combat climate change. The fight for Build Back Better is too important to give up. We will find a way to move forward next year.

Unquote.

I was wrong to think the Democrats would pass Build Back Better in some form this month. I still think they’ll get some of it done in the new year, since even Manchin will vote for some of it. The state he represents prefers Republicans but has the lowest per capita income in America, lower even than Mississippi. Politicians usually want to help people who live in their states, even if said politicians made their money in the coal industry and drive a Maserati.

We Can’t Afford To Be Discouraged

Every so often I step back from the day’s transitory events and consider that a president of the United States recently tried to overturn the results of an election so he could stay in office. With the help of various public officials and propagandists, he has been able to convince millions of Americans that changing the results of the election, i.e. insurrection, was justified. A year later, few Republican politicians refuse to admit he lost.

Furthermore, all around the country, the former president’s supporters are trying to make it harder to vote and easier to change the results of future elections, including an election in which he may again be a candidate.

Support for the Republican Party should have collapsed by now. It hasn’t.

Meanwhile, in Washington, two senators who claim to be Democrats are delaying the implementation of President Biden’s agenda, even though it’s the agenda Biden ran on in 2020. In fact, these two senators refuse to modify the current version of a Senate rule in order to protect the voting rights under assault by members of the other party.

Some voters who ordinarily support Democrats, or might be inclined to do so given the present state of the Republican Party, are discouraged. It’s feared that these voters might not turn out in sufficient numbers in upcoming elections.

The irony is that the situation in Congress and Republican-led statehouses should lead more people to vote and support Democratic candidates. Insuring that the House of Representatives remains in Democratic hands after the 2022 election is crucial. Insuring that there are at least 50 Democrats in the Senate willing to support the president’s agenda and protect voting rights is also crucial. Insuring that more Democrats win local elections is crucial too.

It isn’t fearmongering to point out that America’s political system is on very shaky ground. Majority rule is under attack by right-wing authoritarians. Time is running out to seriously address the climate crisis. This is no time to be discouraged and stop fighting for a better America and a better world.

Sometimes I Think This Country Is Too Stupid To Survive — Part 2

Part 1 dealt with one ridiculous aspect of the story: how the $3.5 trillion everybody is talking about ignores the taxes and cost savings that would approach $3.5 trillion and offset the spending. Paul Waldman of The Washington Post is disgusted with another aspect (“Our Budget Debates Are Insane”):

One of Congress’s main jobs — perhaps its most important — is to decide how to spend the government’s money. And there’s quite a lot of it; in 2022 we’ll be spending around $6 trillion.

Yet the way we talk about budgets in Washington is misconceived, misleading and often downright mad.

Everything wrong with how we think of spending money can be seen in the current negotiations over the social infrastructure bill Democrats hope to pass through reconciliation. But to put this in its proper context, let’s consider another, much bigger bill.

On Thursday, by a vote of 316 to 113, the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which will fund our military operations to the tune of $768 billion in the coming year. The nay votes were mostly conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, presumably dissenting for opposite reasons.

If you’ve been following the reconciliation debate — in which people have been absolutely obsessed with the supposedly terrifying number of $3.5 trillion [Note: which ignores the taxes and cost savings that would pay for it!!!] — you might have thought the defense bill would produce enormous breast-beating about out-of-control spending and debt. After all, that $3.5 trillion is over 10 years, or $350 billion a year, less than half of what we’re going to spend on the military.

But that’s not what happened. . . . 

There were no painful negotiations, no ultimatums, no desperate threats. President Biden did not have to beg and plead to secure anyone’s vote. And you sure didn’t see centrist members of Congress expressing deep concern about its size, claiming it was irresponsible to add so much to the national debt — although we’ll easily be spending $8 or $9 trillion on the military over the same 10-year period.

Yet all that has happened on the social infrastructure bill. The bill’s final spending total — whatever it turns out to be — has been imbued with a bizarre talismanic power, as though it represents something meaningful above and beyond what it’s actually buying.

Consider Sen. Joe Manchin III’s (D-W.Va.) description of a White House meeting President Biden held with centrists to try to work out what’s holding back their support:

“He just basically said find a number you’re comfortable with,” Manchin said, adding that Biden’s message was to “please just work on it. Give me a number”.” Manchin told reporters that he didn’t give Biden a number . . . 

. . . Not only do the centrists not know their preferred number, they don’t seem to have many real opinions about what should actually be in the bill. They may object to an item here or there if you press them, but clearly their perspective starts from the conviction that $3.5 trillion is too big; they’ll fill in the details later.

But that’s completely backward. To negotiate a bill such as this is, you ought to begin by deciding what you want to do, then figure out how much it will cost.

It’s not that cost is completely irrelevant, or that there are some things we’d like to do but won’t because they’re too expensive. But we have plenty of money to work with, and the defense bill proves it.

If we decided the reconciliation bill’s paid family leave and universal pre-K and free community college and aggressive moves to promote clean energy were as important as all the guns and bombs and planes and ships in the defense bill, we’d treat it in the same way, by just buying everything without worrying about the price, because we think it’s worthwhile.

This isn’t the first time Democrats have convinced themselves that there was something magical about a particular budget number: In 2009, during internal debates about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act, Obama White House advisers decided that crossing the threshold of a trillion dollars for either bill would make support melt away. As Michael Grunwald put it, “A trillion was a psychological Rubicon.”

The trillion dollar number became like “Candyman” — intone the word too many times and a monster would come to destroy you. Voters would recoil in disgust, lawmakers would cower in terror and the bill would die. So they reduced the size of the recovery bill, even knowing it was too small to give the economy the boost it needed.

Today, the centrists seem to believe that $3.5 trillion — if you’re spending it on Americans’ actual needs . . .  — will have the same effect [on public opinion?] as $1 trillion did in 2009.

But you know who doesn’t care about numbers? Republicans. When they want to pass a gigantic tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, they just do it, no matter what it costs.

You know who else doesn’t care? The public. They don’t have strong feelings about whether the [spending side of the] social infrastructure bill should add up to $3.5 trillion or $2.5 trillion (here’s a poll showing that changing the dollar figure has no effect on opinion). They’re more interested in what government is doing for them.

Which is exactly as it should be. If only [all of the] Democrats in Washington had enough sense to see things the same way.