Has confrontational politics become the path to success on the national stage? Democrats think so, arguing that it paid off for Republicans, and swearing to double down on their obstructionist "resistance" to President Trump.
This is a big mistake — as well as a critical misreading of a fed-up electorate.
On Tuesday, Betsy DeVos finally won confirmation as secretary of education, but only after an intervention from Vice President Mike Pence. Two of the Senate's 52 Republicans crossed the aisle to join all 48 Democrats in opposing the school-choice activist, leaving the upper chamber deadlocked 50-50. Pence employed the tie-breaking vote that comes with the ex officio status of the president of the Senate, the first time that such a tie-breaking vote had been cast to confirm a Cabinet official.
Given the poisonous post-election atmosphere, Pence's tie-breaking vote on Tuesday likely won't be the last, and maybe not even the last this month. After letting the first handful of Trump nominees mostly sail through, The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe reported on Monday that Senate Democrats have now pivoted to a blanket policy of rejecting Trump's nominees. "If not total unanimity," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) promised, "we're going to have near Democratic unity in opposing the remaining nominees for President Trump's Cabinet."
Nor will that be the only potential ground for obstruction. Politico reports that Senate Democrats have begun strategizing for a partial or total government shutdown. That would most likely get timed to stall the budget process this fall, when political action groups start preparing for the midterm primaries in the spring of 2018.
Now, you don't have to be a history buff to remember when the shoe was on the other foot, and Republicans were obstructing just about everything the Democratic president and Senate wanted to push through. The Obama years were marked by budget brinksmanship, debt ceiling standoffs, and the ill-fated 2013 government shutdown (ostensibly to defund ObamaCare). On the surface, it seems like obstruction worked for the GOP. They stymied Obama, and surged to total control of the government in 2016. Maybe Democrats think they can ride the same strategy to success in 2018 and beyond.
But they can't.
Put simply, we have two ways to look at the shift in power over the last eight years: Either Republicans got a lot more popular, or Democrats got a lot less popular. And it's not really all that difficult to select which is more correct.
Beginning in early 2009, Democrats had single-party control of Washington, and spent more than a year passing a massive and controversial government health insurance program (which, yes, Republicans tried hard to obstruct). Voters responded by giving Republicans control of the House in a historic "shellacking," to quote Obama. In 2012, voters gave Obama a second term while keeping Republicans in the House majority and Democrats in charge of the Senate. By 2014, however, voters stripped Democrats of control of the Senate, too.
Now, one could read that sequence as a signal that Republican obstructionism was successful. But that explanation falls apart when considering the 2016 electoral cycle.
Republicans had one of the strongest presidential fields in recent memory, with at least a half-dozen experienced governors vying for the nomination. Voters could have nominated a traditional party candidate — say, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Rick Perry. Or they could have picked someone who participated in and led obstructionism — like Ted Cruz.
Instead, Republican primary voters chose Donald Trump, a disruption candidate who largely campaigned against the GOP establishment. This is key: Trump won in large part by criticizing the Beltway gridlock that GOP obstructionism created. Meanwhile, Democrats narrowly nominated their most partisan and establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, who managed to lose to GOP's new anti-establishment candidate.
The Democrats' fall from grace did not begin with Republican obstruction. It came from falling victim to the hubris of single-party control, and then failing to recognize that they had lost connection with voters at every level of politics. They stuck to their progressive agenda long after it became apparent that voters outside of their urban and coastal cores didn't share those priorities. Continued obstruction on that agenda is not only not the right prescription, it is practically the worst possible strategy to pursue.
Republicans suffer from similar misconceptions. The GOP is in its strongest position at all levels since Herbert Hoover or perhaps even Reconstruction. That reality can seduce Republicans into convincing themselves that they have reached new heights of popularity through ideological obstructionism. And that is simply untrue. Republicans have benefited from being the only other rational choice in a two-party electoral system, gaining a chance to demonstrate fitness in power — likely with a very short time frame in which to prove it.
Voters want an end to ideological battles. They want to see results. Trump won by casting himself as a tough executive who can cut through the noise to get things done. GOP leaders seem to have learned that lesson, which is why they are loathe to present too much open conflict over Trump's agenda, preferring to work in a more low-key fashion to find common ground with the White House. If Democrats block the GOP, voters won't blame Republicans for the failure — especially not after watching months of public demonstrations of spiteful obstruction.
Democrats, however, still believe that voters want "resistance" to Trump and to defend their ideological agenda at the expense of addressing the economic problems that voters want solved. If Democrats don't wake up to their disconnect with voters, Mike Pence won't have to cast too many tiebreakers after the 2018 midterms.