Telling Democrats To ‘Do Something’ Isn’t Whining. It’s A Warning.

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As Republicans aggressively chip away at democracy, people have pleaded with Democrats to "do something." This concern is usually dismissed as petulant and naive. Democrats are doing something, even if “something" fails a lot. It takes work to serve as the political Washington Generals to the GOP Globetrotters.

We should never forget how horrible Republicans are when they control the House and Senate. Democrats have performed a vital service by keeping them out of the majority ... for now. Unfortunately, playing defense isn't that compelling to voters, who operate according to the Janet Jackson principle of “What Have You Done For Me Lately?"

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin's futile quest for "bipartisanship" has helped give Republicans a permanent veto over Joe Biden's agenda. “Bipartisanship" has produced no tangible benefit for Americans, but at least Manchin can enjoy flowery puff pieces in the New York Times.


Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sounded the alarm last week about Democrats wasting the finite period during which they're in power. Republicans aren't operating in good faith, and the ultimate goal is to run out the clock and then claim Democrats achieved nothing.

Ocasio-Cortez said:

Pres. Biden & Senate Dems should take a step back and ask themselves if playing patty-cake w GOP Senators is really worth the dismantling of people's voting rights, setting the planet on fire, allowing massive corporations and the wealthy to not pay their fair share of taxes, etc.

and

During the Obama admin, folks thought we'd have a 60 Dem majority for a while. It lasted 4 months. Dems are burning precious time & impact negotiating w/GOP who won't even vote for a Jan 6 commission. McConnell's plan is to run out the clock. It's a hustle. We need to move now.

Loyal Democrats on Twitter immediately dismissed Ocasio-Cortez as a "Kardashian reject" who just tweets all day and has never passed important legislation — like naming a post office. Ad hominem attacks are often a deflection from facing unfortunate truths. But AOC's heresy isn't new material. Barack Obama himself made similar observations in September 2010, just a few months before Republican obstruction delivered them the House of Representatives.

But the delays, the cloture votes, the unprecedented obstruction that has taken place in the Senate took its toll. Even if you eventually got something done, it would take so long and it would be so contentious, that it sent a message to the public that "Gosh, Obama said he was going to come in and change Washington, and it's exactly the same, it's more contentious than ever." Everything just seems to drag on — even what should be routine activities, like appointments, aren't happening. So it created an atmosphere in which a public that is already very skeptical of government, but was maybe feeling hopeful right after my election, felt deflated and sort of felt, "We're just seeing more of the same."

It's popular to blame young people and progressives for the 2010 rout, but voters from all demographics rejected Democrats, especially suburban and college-educated voters. Voters don't like when politicians fail to keep their promises, even well-intentioned but hopelessly naive ones such as “I'll magically make Republicans like me." I don't know why Democrats keep making that promise, but it's silly. Republicans are terrible. They will never have an “epiphany," and their anti-democratic “fever" will never break. Democrats are convinced that voters want to hear this crap, but no one wants to elect Charlie Brown.

Ocasio-Cortez isn't demanding that Democrats pass Medicare for All or the Green New Deal through sheer force of will. She's suggesting that we deliver on promises moderate Democrats made in 2020 when they presumably were aware that Republicans exist. Biden campaigned on a public option, for instance, but he couldn't possibly have believed that any Republicans would support it, certainly not enough to overcome an inevitable filibuster.

The reflexive defense for Democrats is that they “don't have the votes" to kill the filibuster, but invoking a no true Scotsman fallacy doesn't make Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema any less Democrats. If they're why Biden's agenda stalls, then you can't blame the Mitch McConnell bogeyman. I never believed that Biden could make deals in the country's best interest with the likes of Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley, but it's a reasonable expectation that the great Senate negotiator could talk some sense into Manchin and Sinema

When the GOP held the trifecta, Democrats objectively lacked the votes to stop the confirmations of Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions. They didn't have the votes to stop Paul Ryan's tax scam bill. They didn't have the votes to keep Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett off the Supreme Court. They couldn't save the Affordable Care Act without the votes of three Republicans. (Please note that by this point in 2017, Senate Republicans had already nuked the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees so they could install Gorsuch.)

However, we currently have the votes to investigate the January 6 attack, pass voting rights reform, and a major infrastructure plan that is perfectly reasonable, moderate-friendly legislation.There are no Defund the Police/Socialist Summer School bills on Biden's agenda, but Democrats won't move forward without the support of 10 Republicans. That's a choice. Congressional Democrats in tough races can't tell their constituents that they didn't fulfill their promises because they "didn't have the votes." People can count.

We're told that the solution is to elect more Democrats to the Senate, so Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are irrelevant. That's an adorable idea, considering that Republicans are passing voter suppression bills across the country. They're rigging the game in broad daylight. We also shouldn't expect that people of color will stand in line for 12 hours without water to vote for politicians who didn't do anything to prevent this situation when they had the chance.

Democrats would also need to add at least three new seats to possibly nuke the filibuster. Dianne Feinstein still embraces democracy's bipartisan anchor. She said last week, "If democracy were in jeopardy, I would want to protect it. But I don't see it being in jeopardy right now."

Stevie Wonder could see that democracy is in jeopardy, but the Senate's official Lindsey Graham-hugger thinks there's nothing to worry about. Mitch McConnell is spinning the filibuster ball on his finger and Democrats refuse to take it.

I know it's frustrating for Democrats when people demand that they “do something," but it's more frustrating to watch Republicans use Democrats' one-sided fealty to traditions and norms as blunt objects. To borrow from Hemingway, "How did US democracy end? Gradually and then suddenly."

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."

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