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 vote, passing 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?
Mr. Walker’s move will solidify some of the policies that made him a hero to many conservatives nationally and, for a brief time, a leading presidential candidate. But participating in what many Democrats consider a legally dubious power grab also cemented another widely held view: that Mr. Walker is a bruising partisan willing to break precedent and ignore protests for political gain.
“The last eight years have been very much characterized by the view of, ‘We’ve got the power, we’re going to do what we want and anybody else, that’s too bad,’” said James E. Doyle, Mr. Walker’s Democratic predecessor as governor, who called the last-minute bills “unseemly.”
The tactic by Mr. Walker and his allies was seen as carving a path for other states, like Michigan, where Republicans are similarly contemplating limits on incoming Democrats. But it also risked energizing Democrats ahead of a 2020 presidential election in which both parties will battle for the Midwest, as well as shaping how people remember Mr. Walker, 51, who leaves the governor’s job on Jan. 7 having spent most of his adult life in elected office.
“What didn’t he do?” said State Senator Fred Risser, a Democrat who was first elected to the Legislature in 1956. “He reversed the progressive, innovative state we used to be proud of.”
.. Mr. Walker, a former legislator and county executive who then was little known outside of the Milwaukee area, won a crucial advantage when he became governor in 2011: Voters not only flipped the governor’s seat to Republican, but also both chambers of the Legislature.
.. Just after signing the bills, Mr. Walker insisted that he had been gracious and helpful to Mr. Evers since the election. “We have been very purposeful in wanting to make sure that this next governor has a good transition,” said Mr. Walker, who added that he had allowed the governor-elect to tour the executive mansion and provided office space for his staff.
.. He posted 21 tweets in 25 minutes, each starting with “OUR LEGACY” and listing an accomplishment. Facing angry accusations on Facebook, he wrote that “our real legacy” was job growth. And in a speech on Thursday to manufacturing workers whose positions had been spared by new tax incentives, he said “I want this to be my legacy.”
.. “It’s tough to lose,” said Jim Villa, a longtime friend and former political aide to Mr. Walker. “But I’ve always said that Scott has one of the calmest demeanors of anyone I know — not a lot of highs and not a lot of lows.”
.. Just three years ago, Mr. Walker had a spin as a front-runner in the presidential race, but his campaign ended quickly as Mr. Trump suctioned support from more traditional candidates. Mr. Walker’s return to Wisconsin was difficult: People complained that he had been too focused on his own ambitions, and he spent months making up for it with parades, local meetings and ribbon cuttings. As he set off this year in a bid for a rare third term as governor, Mr. Walker warned of signs of a “blue wave” and pleaded with Republicans not to be complacent.
.. To Mr. Walker’s supporters, the bills Mr. Walker signed on Friday were pragmatic ways to shore up Republican policies and establish reasonable checks on the incoming Democrats. By signing the bills, he had secured his legacy, they said, not sullied it.
.. “‘My constituents will say, ‘Thank God you’ve protected the reforms, thank God that our state will be able to continue on the path we are on,’” said State Senator Alberta Darling, a Republican from suburban Milwaukee.
But to opponents, the bills represent something sinister. Several warned Mr. Walker that the measures were an unflattering epilogue to his tenure.
“This just goes to show what type of leader he actually was,” said State Senator La Tonya Johnson, a Democrat from Milwaukee. The legislation, she said, “will definitely go down in history as being the biggest power grab ever.”
.. Even some conservatives have spoken out. Sheldon Lubar, a Republican businessman who once supported Mr. Walker, said Mr. Walker’s record would be destroyed by this.
“I think as a relatively young man, he should be very concerned of what his legacy is,” Mr. Lubar said.
.. Among the new restrictions on Mr. Evers: Future governors who negotiate tax incentives like those would need legislative approval for their deal.
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.
Only Trump’s flamboyant awfulness stands in the way of his party’s power grab.
Donald Trump, it turns out, may have been the best thing that could have happened to American democracy.
No, I haven’t lost my mind. Individual-1 is clearly a wannabe dictator who has contempt for the rule of law, not to mention being corrupt and probably in the pocket of foreign powers. But he’s also lazy, undisciplined, self-absorbed and inept. And since the threat to democracy is much broader and deeper than one man, we’re actually fortunate that the forces menacing America have such a ludicrous person as their public face.
.. If you want to understand what’s happening to our country, the book you really need to read is “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. As the authors — professors of government at Harvard — point out, in recent decades a number of nominally democratic nations have become de facto authoritarian, one-party states. Yet none of them have had classic military coups, with tanks in the street.
.. What we’ve seen instead are coups of a subtler form:
- takeovers or intimidation of the news media,
- rigged elections that disenfranchise opposing voters,
- new rules of the game that give the ruling party overwhelming control even if it loses the popular vote,
- corrupted courts.
.. The classic example is Hungary, where Fidesz, the white nationalist governing party, has effectively
- taken over the bulk of the media;
- destroyed the independence of the judiciary;
- rigged voting to enfranchise supporters and disenfranchise opponents;
- gerrymandered electoral districts in its favor; and
- altered the rules so that a minority in the popular vote translates into a supermajority in the legislature.
Does a lot of this sound familiar? It should. You see, Republicans have been adopting similar tactics — not at the federal level (yet), but in states they control... the states, which Justice Louis Brandeis famously pronounced the laboratories of democracy, “are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose.”
.. Thus, voter purges and deliberate restriction of minority access to the polls have become standard practice in much of America. Would Brian Kemp, the governor-elect of Georgia — who oversaw his own election as secretary of state — have won without these tactics? Almost certainly not.
.. you get a lot less reassured if you look at what happened at the state level, where votes often weren’t reflected in terms of control of state legislatures.
Let’s talk, in particular, about what’s happening in Wisconsin.
.. Having lost every statewide office in Wisconsin last month, Republicans are using the lame-duck legislative session to drastically curtail these offices’ power, effectively keeping rule over the state in the hands of the G.O.P.-controlled Legislature.
.. What has gotten less emphasis is the fact that G.O.P. legislative control is also undemocratic. Last month Democratic candidates received 54 percent of the votes in State Assembly elections — but they ended up with only 37 percent of the seats.
.. In other words, Wisconsin is turning into Hungary on the Great Lakes, a state that may hold elections, but where elections don’t matter, because the ruling party retains control no matter what voters do.
.. As far as I can tell, not a single prominent Republican in Washington has condemned
- the power grab in Wisconsin,
- the similar grab in Michigan, or even
- what looks like outright electoral fraud in North Carolina.
.. Elected Republicans don’t just increasingly share the values of white nationalist parties like Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice; they also share those parties’ contempt for democracy. The G.O.P. is an authoritarian party in waiting.
.. Which is why we should be grateful for Trump. If he weren’t so flamboyantly awful, Democrats might have won the House popular vote by only 4 or 5 points, not 8.6 points.
.. And in that case, Republicans might have maintained control — and we’d be well along the path to permanent one-party rule.
Instead, we’re heading for a period of divided government, in which the opposition party has both the power to block legislation and, perhaps even more important, the ability to conduct investigations backed by subpoena power into Trump administration malfeasance.
.. But this may be no more than a respite. For whatever may happen to Donald Trump, his party has turned its back on democracy. And that should terrify you.
.. The fact is that the G.O.P., as currently constituted, is willing to do whatever it takes to seize and hold power. And as long as that remains true, and Republicans remain politically competitive, we will be one election away from losing democracy in America.