Thursday in the New York Times, Mitch McConnell wrote an op-ed that, assuming you can keep your rage in check, is actually very promising for the left. To put it bluntly, the Senate majority leader is preparing for defeat in 2020.
More on that momentarily—first, the op-ed. Using more words than he needed (the first time in my life I can relate to the man), he made a very simple argument. To paraphrase:
“Democrats want to get rid of the legislative filibuster, which would allow them to pass legislation with just 51 votes, bypassing the current requirement of 60 votes to end debate and actually bring said legislation to an up-and-down vote. This is a bad idea, because the minute Republicans have power, we’re going to use it the same exact way, just as we did after they got rid of the judicial nomination filibuster, which eventually allowed us to confirm Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and a record number of lifetime circuit judges. And on the level of principle, the Senate filibuster may obstruct legislation, but this is a good thing because it protects America from the whims of the party in power.”
Now, this is a curious argument for McConnell to make. While it is true that a McConnell-controlled Senate that could pass any piece of legislation with just 51 votes is not an ideal prospect, he is vastly under-stating his own current power. For one thing, he just used the reconciliation loophole to do exactly that with Trump’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” and he nearly used the same process to scuttle Obamacare, only to be foiled at the midnight hour by John McCain. Secondly, regarding the judicial nomination filibuster, McConnell is the guy who refused to allow a vote on Merrick Garland. Do we really believe he would have fought fair with Kavanaugh and Gorsuch and Trump’s circuit court judges if the filibuster was still in place? Of course not! He would have used the same nuclear option the Democrats used in 2013 to pass Obama’s nominees with a simple majority.
In short, McConnell’s whole “you’re going to be sorry” act is meaningless—he fights dirty at every turn, and he usually wins. There’s absolutely no reason for Democrats to think they’re going to be unduly punished if they pursue an end to the legislative filibuster. McConnell will screw them either way, and he’ll do it the minute he has an edge.
Further, McConnell is the majority leader. Until Democrats take control of the Senate, he has nothing to worry about. If anything, you’d think he would want the filibuster to go away, thereby giving him the freedom to pass legislation without hunting for loopholes like reconciliation.
So why is he making this argument now? Because Mitch McConnell knows a few things. For instance:
1. The Democrats hold the House now, and the way the country is moving, they’re probably not going to give it up anytime soon. Without a Republican House, McConnell won’t be able to pass any significant conservative legislation even with 51 votes, so torpedoing the legislative filibuster does him no good.
2. The Republicans hold a slim 53-47 majority in the Senate, and although it’s extremely difficult for Democrats to re-take that majority, because of the absurd over-representation of red states in the chamber, they do seem to have a slight edge heading into the 2020 races, and could conceivably force a 50-50 tie that would be broken in their favor if a Democrat wins the presidency. Regardless of that, it’s all but impossible for either party to gain a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority anytime in the next decade, at least.
Knowing that, where does it leave McConnell? Clearly, he believes he may well see a Democratic majority in both chambers, with the possible addition of the presidency, by 2020. That’s more likely, for him, than a Republican-controlled House, and far more likely than either party taking 60 Senate seats and rendering the filibuster moot.
In other words, he’s preparing for life after the majority, and what McConnell wants more than anything is the ability to stop Democratic legislation as minority leader. He wants the power to fight rearguard actions, over and over, even without a numerical advantage. He wants the Senate to function as it has functioned for at least 100 years, as a giant obstruction standing in the way of progress. And the only way for him to do that, should he find himself as minority leader, is through the filibuster. If that procedural wrench-in-the-works falls by the wayside, he could well be staring at the passage of universal healthcare and a dozen other pieces of progressive legislation that keep him awake at night. An end to the legislative filibuster would leave him powerless.
Clearly, Democrats should ignore McConnell’s warnings. They are a reflection of desperation, or at least the beginnings of it. As much as you may dislike McConnell (we dislike him quite a lot), nobody can accuse him of being a dumb politician, and he knows which way the wind blows. By trying to threaten Democrats in his Times op-ed, he’s all-too-clearly revealing his cards as a man who sees his time in the top chair coming to an end, and wants to preserve whatever power he can before he’s forced to fight from the bottom.