In the noir classic The Maltese Falcon, gumshoe Sam Spade hunts down the eponymous statue only to discover a more nebulous evil behind it, one he’s powerless to dislodge. If Democrats beat Trump in the next election, they’ll find Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lurking in the background, ready to turn their promises of change into gridlock that depresses their voters, feeds the alienation of our era, and paves the way to the White House for a more polished Trump, someone who can marshal the same malevolent forces with fewer rough edges.
Even if 2020 brings a blue tsunami that sweeps away McConnell himself, his strategy of obstruction will survive to paralyze a new Democratic administration, just like it did President Barack Obama. Beating Trump won’t be enough, regardless of the size of the victory. To deliver on their promises, Democrats need to both take back the Senate and reform it to prevent Republicans from wielding a slim minority to gridlock the entire government.
Taking back the Senate is tough but doable. There are enough pickup opportunities but no easy races, so Democrats need all hands on deck.
Congressman Beto O’Rourke said he’s sticking with the presidential race, and the Texas Democratic senate primary is full of strong candidates—like Air Force vet M. J. Hegar, Houston council member Amanda Edwards, and progressive community leader Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez—to unseat John Cornyn, whose approval rating is an anemic 37 percent. Still, O’Rourke has unique assets: universal name recognition and the proven ability to raise enormous sums of grassroots money in a state where the cost of running a statewide campaign can be prohibitively high. Some candidates are indelibly linked to place, and it’s hard to shake the impression O’Rourke’s strength seems to ebb and flow based on his proximity to El Paso.
In Montana, Governor Steve Bullock is probably the only Democrat with a fighting chance to beat incumbent Republican Senator Steve Daines. Polling under one percent and failing to make the latest debate stage, Bullock’s presidential campaign was over before it began. He has a better chance at helping Democrats take back the Senate and enact historic change there than being anything other than forgotten in the presidential race.
Part of the reason O’Rourke and Bullock are running for president instead of senator is that there’s not much appeal to working in a dysfunctional institution. But reform would turn it into a place capable of passing big things again. It’s an incentive, but it’s also necessary: The simple reality is that to get anything done, Democrats will need to reform the Senate to end the ability of the party out of power to force everything—from routine business to major legislation—to secure 60 votes in order to clear a once-obscure procedural hurdle.
This is the tool McConnell wielded against Obama as a weapon of mass obstruction. He calculated that Republicans could obstruct relentlessly, play on the media’s “both sides” instincts to defray blame, and then be rewarded when the public blamed the party in power for gridlock. To that end, McConnell obliterated all records for deploying the 60-vote threshold, using it as many times in Obama’s first term as in the previous 20 years combined.
McConnell obliterated all records for deploying the 60-vote threshold, using it as many times in Obama’s first term as in the previous 20 years combined.
Recently, the supermajority threshold has become synonymous with the filibuster, a term that evokes ghosts of the Founders and scenes of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, his suit rumpled and papers flailing, talking himself blue on the Senate floor. But the Mr. Smith–style talking filibuster and the supermajority threshold are two different things. The supermajority threshold stems from an obscure rule that was introduced in 1917. Rarely invoked for the first half century of its existence, it started to mutate in the 1970s as post–civil rights realignment fed partisan tensions, control of the majority was up for grabs more frequently, and senators looked for more creative ways to make the other side look bad. Unlike in the movie, senators don’t have to hold the floor to invoke the 60-vote threshold. They don’t have to debate or explain their position publicly, or try to persuade anyone of anything. They don’t have to talk at all—they can literally phone in their objection to the Senate cloakroom, then sit back and watch the gears of governance grind to a halt.
This is not what the Founders wanted. They created the Senate as a majority-rule body, a place where debate mattered, but after everyone had their say, business would be decided on a simple majority vote. George Washington’s famous description of the Senate to Thomas Jefferson as the “saucer that cools the tea” had nothing to do with the supermajority threshold, since there was none in the original Senate and there wouldn’t be one on the books for more than a hundred years after Washington spoke those words.
While the Founders inserted checks against the tyranny of the majority at other points, they issued explicit and stern warnings against the danger of giving the minority too much power in the Senate—a distinction that’s usually glossed over by defenders of the institution’s status quo. In "Federalist 22," Alexander Hamilton called it a “poison” to give the minority the power to stop the majority in the Senate, and that doing so would lead to “tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.”
It’s like he saw McConnell coming. And now that McConnell has taken the institution across that Rubicon, there’s no going back.
Reform is the only way to restore the Senate to a reasonably well-functioning institution. The good news is that the supermajority threshold can be abolished with a simple majority vote. Such a move would offend some pundits and armchair institutionalists. And some Democratic senators, like Delaware Senator Chris Coons, continue to ignore the evidence of recent history and argue that the 60-vote threshold will function as a force for compromise rather than a tool of gridlock and obstruction. Even with the entire progressive agenda at stake, senators like Coons will be tempted to focus more on pleasing the gatekeepers of Sunday talk show green rooms than delivering results for the people they represent. So getting 50 Democratic votes will require presidential leadership.
As the primary heads into the home stretch, a candidate’s stance on Senate reform is a good litmus test for discerning whether they want to wield power to deliver results, or just be president for the sake of it. As my former boss, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, said, getting rid of the supermajority threshold is inevitable. The only question is whether a Democratic president realizes it on day one, or after hemorrhaging precious time and capital chasing illusory alternatives.
Vice president Joe Biden’s notion that Republicans will have an “epiphany” and work with him despite obstructing President Obama is an egotistical fantasy. Underlying this statement is an implication that Republicans’ antipathy to Obama was driven in part by racism, which is undeniably true. But Republicans will obstruct the next Democratic president regardless of who he or she is for a simple reason: McConnell’s strategy works.
McConnell’s playbook helped Republicans regain power faster than they ever imagined after Obama’s dominant 2008 victory, retaking the House in 2010 with a gain of 63 seats and slashing Democrats’ 60-seat majority in the Senate. There’s no reason for Republicans to think the same strategy won’t work again on a new Democratic president who takes office on promises of hope and change. And they’ll retain a hammerlock on the 41 Senate seats they need to run McConnell’s playbook, which they can hold just by winning in states Trump won by 20 or more points in 2016.
It won’t matter if the ideas the Democratic president proposes are big or small because Republicans’ goal isn’t to block specific bills, it’s to make voters think the federal government is broken. Republicans will block more moderate versions of the big ideas on the table in 2020 just as happily as they’ll block big, structural change. They already have; the public option, the DREAM Act, and job-creating infrastructure investments all had more than 50 votes in the Senate but were blocked by Republicans using the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.
McConnell tries to get in Democrats’ heads by reminding them of his warning that they’d regret going nuclear in 2013 to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for most nominations. But the numbers tell the opposite story. If Democrats hadn’t made that move when they did, they would have confirmed far fewer Obama judges and McConnell would have had more judicial vacancies to fill under Trump. If you believe McConnell would’ve deferred to Senate norms, declined to go nuclear himself under President Trump, and forfeited his chance to reshape the judiciary—including confirming two conservatives to the Supreme Court—please give my regards to Justice Merrick Garland.
Democrats should embrace the reality that obstruction is not neutral; it has a hard partisan lean to the right. Progressives have more to gain and conservatives more to lose by restoring the Senate to the Founders’ vision of a majority-vote institution. As the force of change, progressives enact their agenda by passing large-scale legislation. As the force of the status quo, conservative enact theirs by blocking things. We live in a two-party system and one day Republicans will use the lower threshold to pass things progressives don’t like. But if Democrats are paralyzed by fear of what Republicans might do, they won’t get anything done themselves while they’re in power. And Republicans will set the country back decades anyway the next time they get the upper hand.
Adam Jentleson is a columnist for GQ, and the former deputy chief of staff to former Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
Originally Appeared on GQ