Republicans Don’t Believe in Democracy

Do Democrats understand what they’re facing?

Item: Last week Republicans in the North Carolina House used the occasion of 9/11 to call a surprise votepassing a budget bill with a supermajority to override the Democratic governor’s veto. They were able to do this only because most Democrats were absent, some of them attending commemorative events; the Democratic leader had advised members that they didn’t need to be present because, he says, he was assured there would be no votes that morning.

Item: Also last week, Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a subpoena to the acting director of national intelligence, who has refused to turn over a whistle-blower complaint that the intelligence community’s inspector general found credible and of “urgent concern.” We don’t know what the whistle-blower was warning about, but we do know that the law is clear: Such complaints must be referred to Congress, no exceptions allowed.

On the surface, these stories may seem to be about very different things. The fight in North Carolina is basically about the G.O.P.’s determination to deny health care to low-income Americans; the governor had threatened to veto any budget that didn’t expand Medicaid. The whistle-blower affair probably involves malfeasance by high government officials, quite possibly President Trump, that in some way threatens national security.

What the stories have in common, however, is that they illustrate contempt for democracy and constitutional government. Elections are supposed to have consequences, conveying power to the winners. But when Democrats win an election, the modern G.O.P. does its best to negate the results, flouting norms and, if necessary, the law to carry on as if the voters hadn’t spoken.

Similarly, last year America’s voters chose to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives. This still leaves Democrats without the ability to pass legislation, since Republicans control the Senate and the White House. But the House, by law, has important additional powers — the right to be informed of what’s going on in the executive branch, such as complaints by whistle-blowers, and the right to issue subpoenas demanding information relevant to governing.

The Trump administration, however, has evidently decided that none of that matters. So what if Democrats demand information they’re legally entitled to? So what if they issue subpoenas? After all, law enforcement has to be carried out by the Justice Department — and under William Barr, Justice has effectively become just another arm of the G.O.P.

This is the context in which you want to think about the latest round of revelations about Brett Kavanaugh.

First of all, we now know that the F.B.I., essentially at Republican direction, severely limited its investigation into Kavanaugh’s past. So Kavanaugh was appointed to a powerful, lifetime position without a true vetting.

Second, both Kavanaugh’s background and the circumstances of his appointment suggest that Mitch McConnell went to unprecedented lengths to create a Republican bloc on the Supreme Court that will thwart anything and everything Democrats try to accomplish, even if they do manage to take both Congress and the White House. In particular, as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, it seems extremely likely that this court will block any meaningful action on climate change.

What can Democrats do about this situation? They need to win elections, but all too often that won’t be sufficient, because they confront a Republican Party that at a basic level doesn’t accept their right to govern, never mind what the voters say. So winning isn’t enough; they also have to be prepared for that confrontation.

And surely the first step is recognizing the problem exists. Which brings me to the Democratic presidential primary race.

The leading candidates for the Democratic nomination differ considerably in both their personalities and their policy proposals, but these pale beside their differences from Donald Trump and his party. All of them are decent human beings; all would, if given the chance, move America in a notably more progressive direction.

The real chasm between the candidates is, instead, in the extent to which they get it — that is, the extent to which they understand what they’re facing in the modern G.O.P.

The big problem with Joe Biden, still the front-runner, is that he obviously doesn’t get it. He’s made it clear on many occasions that he considers Trump an aberration and believes that he could have productive, amicable relations with Republicans once Trump is gone.

Which raises the question: Even if Biden can win, is he too oblivious to govern effectively?

The Democrats’ Best Response to Republican Power Grabs

In Michigan and Wisconsin, lame duck Republican-majority legislatures are enacting laws to limit the powers of incoming Democratic governors. Two years ago in North Carolina, the same happened. These moves are particularly striking examples of recent aggressive Republican procedural hardball. Whatever the right rules are for the separation of powers, they should apply to both parties and not be changed opportunistically.

.. Should they go tit-for-tat and escalate procedural shenanigans, rules-stretching and rules-breaking? Or should they strive, leading by good example, to maintain a system of norms that have provided political stability in the hopes that a more moderate, reasonable Republican Party will re-emerge?

.. Retaliating in kind could aggravate already deep polarization and wreck what’s left of our political norms. Restraint, on the other hand, would establish new norms that establish electoral disadvantages for Democrats and embolden Republicans.

.. There is a better option, and it also happens to be the best option. Democrats can use the Republican hardball against them by weaving together the Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina cases into a larger story to take to voters in 2020: the indictment of Republican attacks on democracy accompanied by an aggressive reform agenda for strengthening constitutional norms and democratic procedures.

.. But a very clear narrative or popular revulsion — or both — can change that. Examples are found in the Progressive Era around the turn of the 20th century and again in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, when procedural reform gained traction, for better or for worse, and both term limits and campaign finance reform had moments of widespread popular enthusiasm. There’s good reason to think that the next two years offer the opportunity to create such a corruption narrative and to take advantage of what’s likely to be growing revulsion.

.. President Trump’s administration has made this job easier: The midterm election results showed that its scandals and disgrace have already focused voters’ attention. That’s not the time for retaliation and escalation. It’s the time offer prescriptions for rebuilding the rules that accompany a diagnosis that helps voters make sense of how badly wrong things have gone. Democrats can try to punish Republicans at the ballot box by trying to strengthen rather than weaken democratic norms.

The obvious place to begin is with the White House itself. Proposals to

  • require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns,
  • give teeth to the Emoluments Clause,
  • strengthen anti-nepotism rules that should keep unqualified family members out of sensitive offices,
  • extend conflict-of-interest rules to include the president, and
  • turn blind trust norms into binding rules

won’t be hard to understand under Mr. Trump. They will reinforce voters’ distrust of the president while also offering ways to prevent his abuses from becoming standard practice.

.. Republican procedural abuses at the state level precede the Trump administration, but they can fairly be connected to it. Most important is disenfranchisement. Democrats should emphasize the sustained nationwide Republican effort to limit access to the ballot and offer proposals to

  • restore the Voting Rights Act,
  • end felon disenfranchisement,
  • undo restrictive voter identification rules,
  • ease registration,
  • protect early voting and
  • ensure that voting places are more widely and evenly distributed.

Not only has Mr. Trump been on the wrong side of those issues, encouraging state crackdowns on imagined millions of noncitizen voters; but voting restrictions in narrowly won Midwestern states got him closer to the White House in the first place.

.. Other proposals, from statehood for the District of Columbia to gerrymandering reform, then make sense as part of the same effort to strengthen representation and fair democratic practice.

.. This is also the best approach for Democrats in the short term because they’re not in a strong position to retaliate even if an angry activist base wants them to. Despite some losses last month, Republicans remain in control of more governor’s seats and more state legislatures. More important, making things worse right now really is the wrong thing to do. If Democrats follow a course of unrestrained but legal tactics, we could find ourselves embroiled in even more severe dysfunction and a constitutional crisis. Tit for tat is sometimes necessary to enforce norms, but escalation in an already seriously polarized environment is dangerous.

.. If Democrats can offer a unifying indictment tying Republican attacks on democratic norms to Trump administration abuses, along with a coherent package of serious proposals to restore procedural fairness, voters will have a way of making sense of new examples of Republican sharp dealing.

.. Proposals to shorten lame duck legislative sessions and to constrain their authority, for example, would reinforce the idea that Republicans have been the party of procedural abuses and unfairness while still setting forth a good neutral rule.

.. This is the alternative to doing nothing or making things worse: seek to punish Republicans in 2020 by offering a vision of how to make things better.

Republicans Are No Longer Committed to That Whole Peaceful Transfer of Power Thing

You may not have noticed this when it happened, but North Carolina elected a Democratic governor in 2016. It was a close race, and Republicans demanded multiple recounts, but eventually they conceded and Roy Cooper was declared the winner.

But that didn’t mean everything was over. After all, there was another month left in which lame duck Republican Pat McRory was still governor and the Republican legislature was still running things. So they did something unique: they passed a series of bills that stripped the governor of some of his powers. Cooper sued after he took office, of course, and the whole mess is currently working its way through the courts. Still, as corrupt as this was, at least it was just North Carolina, which has a recent history of anti-democratic actions barely matched since the end of Reconstruction.

.. In the same way that voter ID bills spread throughout red states after the first one produced light bulbs all over GOP-land, the same thing is happening here. Republicans who lost reelection bids in November are casting their eyes toward North Carolina and thinking that those Tarheels had a pretty good idea. Here’s Michigan:

.. The incoming Democrats had promised a crackdown on dark money contributions, and this is an obvious attempt to stop them. The new commission would be split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, which would halt campaign finance reform in its tracks. And if Michigan can do it, you know that Scott Walker must be looking on from Wisconsin wondering if he can do the same thing.

.. And so the red splotch expands, as Republicans desperately try to thwart democracy and the usual peaceful transfer of power. Will our courts let them get away with this? Stay tuned.

North Carolina’s ‘Legislative Coup’ Is Over, and Republicans Won

Legislators passed a slate of bills to sharply reduce the power of the incoming governor, over the heated objections of Democrats and hundreds of protestors.

The North Carolina General Assembly on Friday wrapped up a special session in which the Republicans who dominate both chambers mounted a brazen and successful effort to strip the incoming Democratic governor of a host of powersafforded to his Republican predecessor and many governors before. Having lost the governor’s seat in November’s election, the GOP legislature opted to simply reduce the governor’s power drastically. The two most prominent billsinvolve the elections system and the governor’s right to make appointments.

Watering Down Democrat’s Power in Wisconsin

Republicans in the state have passed sweeping legislation to rein in the authority of the incoming governor and attorney general, both of them Democrats.

Across the country, Democratic candidates for governor and attorney general have won seats that had long been held by Republicans. But Republican-controlled legislatures in some states are resisting that transfer of power.