Why do Democrats want to win Congress if they don’t want to use power? What is the entire point of Democrats raising money and ginning up activist energy to win control of the U.S. House, if when a crisis hits they just pass whatever Mitch McConnell sends them? Is there anything they’ll actually negotiate for? And why won’t they flip the script and force McConnell to vote yes or no on their own agenda?
These are the questions bouncing around my mind as Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi accede to another GOP-written stimulus bill -- and I think ultimately the answer has to do with deep-seated, self-destructive fear that was internalized by party leaders a generation ago during another national crisis.
Before we get to that, consider the present: the GOP bill adds more money for testing, hospitals and small business loans — the latter including a few vaguely positive tweaks, but no serious measures to prevent those loans from being raided by big business.
McConnell had the nerve to write a multi-trillion dollar check to large corporations, and then turn around and block money for state aid -- and he actually admitted he blocked it specifically because he doesn’t want states using it to prevent cuts to the retirement benefits of teachers, first responders, firefighters, cops and other public-sector workers.
“This whole business of additional assistance for state and local governments needs to be thoroughly evaluated,” McConnell said. “There’s not going to be any desire on the Republican side to bail out state pensions by borrowing money from future generations.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein points out that the legislation doesn’t include any resources for first responders, budget-strapped states or food stamps. It doesn’t include any new oversight of the first bailout bill. It includes nothing to help states move to a vote-by-mail system in the event that coronavirus complicates in-person voting during the general election.
It basically doesn’t include any alleged Democratic Party priority at all.
McConnell is using the same tactic he’s always used -- he rams legislation through the Senate, and then shuts the Senate down, daring the House to reject it. At the same time, Trump airs an ad equating Nancy Pelosi to Marie Antoinette, effectively pressuring her to back down -- which she already has. And so it goes.
Pelosi depicts this all not as Democratic weakness or ineptitude, but as some genius game of 5-dimensional chess. She insisted that when it comes to desperately needed aid to states, “We could relent on some of that because we know this next bill is going to happen very soon."
But McConnell is already laughing at her: the Senate Republican leader who just gave a $500 billion check to Steve Mnuchin to dole out to GOP campaign donors is now suddenly citing the national debt as reason there may be no next bill at all.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Senate Democrats could put up some kind of fight -- they could filibuster, they could try for amendments, they could do anything other than just voice vote through whatever McConnell gives them.
House Democrats could do even more. They literally control the House. It is theirs. They could pass their own emergency legislation and dare McConnell to reject it, at a time when he is running for reelection and polls show he is one of the country’s most unpopular senators.
But they refuse -- and their rationale is revealing.
Yes, Democratic leaders want to placate their corporate donors by passing corporate bailout bills. Yes, they are part of a bipartisan establishment that takes orders from K Street. That’s all true.
However, Democrats’ willingness to publicly berate Trump and then pass his agenda is also driven by a fear of being portrayed as obstructionists. Basically, they don’t want to be accused of halting legislation that might trickle down to workers, even if that legislation is imperfect or wildly corrupt.
You have to appreciate that this fear is not fleeting -- it is deeply ingrained over two decades. It is definitional to who Democratic leaders are.
These Democrats are the same people who were mercilessly bullied by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney -- bullied into supporting the Iraq War, the Patriot Act and every other horrible travesty that defined the post-9/11 era. They remember war critics having their patriotism questioned and being marginalized by media outlets. They remember being traumatized by GOP ads like this, which suggested they were soft on national security:
And so their default setting during a national crisis is fear and acquiescence.
It is the performance art of outraged press releases followed by yes votes for McConnell’s bills.
It is a categorical refusal to use real power against the GOP -- all while they use power to marginalize progressives (most recent example: Pelosi’s decision to appoint corporate Democrat Donna Shalala instead of progressive Katie Porter to the bailout oversight panel).
It is unanimous consent to Trump -- even as Trump rewards that consent with ads insisting they are obstructionists.
The questions now are: is there anything Democrats are willing to do? Is there anything they won’t just accept? If there is a next bill, and it includes a provision to literally wire transfer $1 trillion into the personal bank account of Steve Mnuchin, would there be any Democratic votes against it at all?
I wish I knew the answer -- but I don’t.
Until there are new leaders -- or until there is real pressure from the left -- the Democratic Party seems intent on being a rubber stamp.