Democrats Don’t Have a Good Answer to the Mitch McConnell Question

How will they get their policies through a Republican-controlled Senate?

Republican senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky attends a hearing in Washington DC, August 23, 2018
Republican senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky attends a hearing in Washington DC, August 23, 2018 (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Democrats don’t have a good answer to what Ezra Klein calls the “Mitch McConnell question”.

The Republican leader is likely to retain his majority, or at least a blocking minority, in the United States Senate next year. Then what will come of the Democrats’ plans?

In two debates on Wednesday and Thursday night, none of the party’s twenty presidential hopefuls had a good answer.

Hope

Joe Biden, the former vice president, is counting on the comity of the Senate he served in for almost four decades to return so that the two parties might compromise again.

This was Barack Obama’s hope as well: that the Republican “fever” would at some point break. It didn’t during Obama’s presidency. What makes Biden think it would during his?

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were the only other candidates with a serious answer to the question. Both called for popular pressure on the Senate — a “political revolution,” in Sanders’ words — to enact a Democratic president’s agenda.

There the record is mixed. Republicans did U-turn on reversing Obamacare when voters protested against it, but overwhelming public support for such things as universal background checks on gun purchases and higher taxes on the wealthy (PDF) have not caused Republicans to change their minds. Nor have presidential appeals to the public often persuaded legislators.

Too many candidates

Part of the problem is that too many Democrats are running for president and not for the Senate. I argued this a month ago and Klein makes the point as well:

Democrats would have a better chance in Texas if Beto O’Rourke or Julián Castro had chosen to take on John Cornyn. Thursday’s presidential debate will feature John Hickenlooper, the strongest candidate Democrats could have fielded in Colorado. Steve Bullock, the only Democrat with a shot in Montana, didn’t qualify for the debates, but he’s still running for president rather than Senate.

What can be done?

End the filibuster, so it takes a simple majority, rather than sixty votes, to make laws; split up populous blue states, like California and New York, to create more Democratic Senate seats; extend statehood to Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia — and maybe even Native American tribes.

There are nonpartisan arguments for all these proposals. They would also all benefit Democrats, who have a popular majority, but who are struggling to translate that majority into power in a system that favors rural over urban areas.