Senate Democrats: Go ahead, scrap the filibuster
Eliminating the filibuster would be the greatest political gift the Democrats have inadvertently given Republicans since George McGovern was nominated.
As the eve of the Senate showdown drew near last month on page 1, affectionately known by Democrats as the “For the People Act,” the pre-trial clearly showed all the trappings of a carefully curated show: Democrats had spent months doing it, absurd to market the Liberal Wish List as a “voting bill” modeled on the 1965 Suffrage Act. After the Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer twisted many arms, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin agreed to the 50th and last minute to cast the last democratic vote for the start of the debate on page 1. Most importantly, Vice President Kamala Harris was dragged into the Senate Chamber in her motorcade to chair the vote.
After all that, the end result was rather disappointing: a 50-50 party line that made it impossible for Democrats to overcome a Republican filibuster that was stalling debate on the bill. But aside from being anti-climatic, the result was also fully expected. For months, Republicans had made it clear that they were going to thwart the law. Even if they hadn’t foiled it, Senator Manchin, who supported the beginning debate on the bill but not the bill itself, would have prevented a majority in the face of the united Republican opposition.
Then why did the Democrats spend so much time and energy preparing such a spectacle? The answer is simple: to encourage their “progressive” base to pressure Joe Manchin and moderate Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema to provide the votes necessary to eliminate the filibuster once and for all. This would allow the Democrats to pass any bill with just 50 votes instead of the current 60. President Biden greatly encouraged this approach by ahistorically referring to the filibuster as the “Jim Crow relic.” Meanwhile, the Republicans, along with the two Senate Democrats mentioned above, have firmly defended the filibuster.
Despite all the efforts of the Republicans, it is becoming increasingly difficult for moderate Democrats to defend the filibuster as left-wing pressure continues to mount. But is that necessarily bad for Republicans? Those who believe so are mistakenly analyzing the situation as if it were taking place in a vacuum rather than in the context of electoral politics. The truth is, getting rid of the filibuster would have little impact on the Democrats’ ability to execute on their ambitious agenda. With the Senate split 50-50, Democrats couldn’t afford to lose a single vote on a bill they were about to pass; yet Manchin and several other Democratic senators have already signaled that they are unwilling to support swift unilateral action on Marquis issues such as electoral reform and massive deficit spending.
It is beneficial for the purpose of analogy to look back on the first two years of Trump’s presidency, when the Republicans were caught in a similar dilemma as the Democrats are now. Faced with a slim majority, a president who supported the abolition of the filibuster, and overwhelming pressure from the party base, the Republicans in the Senate decided to keep the status quo. Their calculation was pretty simple: key laws like the Health Care Freedom Act of 2017 and the RAISE Act did not find enough support within the caucus to pass even without the filibuster and with a larger majority in the Republican Senate than the Democrats. For Republicans, eliminating the filibuster at the time would have been a low-reward risk.
The risks for Democrats today are great if they take the course Republicans rejected years ago. The appeal for blanket partisanship is by no means the tactic that has enabled her party to regain control of both Congress and the presidency in recent years. Of the incumbent Democratic MPs who dyed districts blue in 2018, there are around twice as many in the nominally non-partisan committee for problem solvers as in the hard-left Congressional Progressive Caucus. President Biden, as we all recall, made bipartisanism the central theme of his campaign while downplaying the more radical elements of his platform.
If the Democrats blatantly destroy the myth of their openness to work across the aisle with a futile maneuver, how will the swing voters in the suburbs fare? Or with center-right ticket-splitting residents of the seven representations Trump won in 2020, which are currently represented by Democratic incumbents? More critically, how will it fare with rural voters in the three states that Trump has won twice (by landslide margins) and is running Democratic senators for re-election in 2024? Senator Manchin knows the answer, and that is precisely why he is so adamant in his insistence on opposing his party for the time being.
In fact, up to six Democratic incumbents in the Republican states of Arizona, Georgia, Montana, West Virginia and Ohio will be re-elected between 2022 and 2024. Democratic senators from these states who vote for the elimination of the filibuster would effectively sign their political death sentences and torpedo their party’s plan to get a majority in the Senate for the remainder of Biden’s tenure and beyond. Additionally, the move would seriously endanger the Democratic Senate incumbents in certain left-wing states such as Maine, New Hampshire, Nevada, Michigan, and Minnesota. Keep in mind that the Democrats’ elimination of the filibuster and subsequent attempts to pass far-reaching left-wing laws in the Senate would be sent by the Republicans through charges of aggression in these races and inevitably used as a weapon.
However, the ultimate irony and trap for the Democrats lies elsewhere. A padded, filibuster-free Senate Republican majority resulting from a possible looming misstep by their opponents, combined with a Republican majority and a post-2024 presidency, could be used to pass the kind of sweeping laws that President Trump has already seen in 2017 and 2018 agitated Otherwise, such victories are unlikely: Even with a Senate majority of 59 seats (one seat less than filibuster-safe) and control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats struggled to push through most of their agenda in Obama’s first two years in office. Republicans patiently waiting for the public order triumphs they have dodged the party since the New Deal began should drool as they watch the Democrats naively draw closer to the great trap they are setting for themselves.
Like the George McGovern nomination in 1972, the elimination of the filibuster would be little more than a symbolic Pyrrhic victory for the hard left. TV experts and grassroots activists would be cheering the movement and praising moderate Democrats for “growing a backbone” just to scratch their heads about what went wrong when election day comes and the Democrats get their Senate majority after two years with little to no substance loosely lose legislative achievements. Meanwhile, Republicans should ponder the old adage attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Never meddle with an enemy who makes a mistake.”
Milton Zerman is co-founder of Montalvo Analytics, a data consulting company that has worked on major statewide, local, and congressional campaigns in the state of California. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley has a degree in history and currently resides in Washington, D.C.