Talking Points

Democrats hit a dead end

Is this the end of Democratic governance? The debate over voting rights is over for now, infrastructure talks are still dragging on, and the filibuster isn't going anywhere. Democrats seem lost about what to do next, except tear their hair out and point fingers at each other. The party's control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives is just a few months old, and it feels like the fun part might already be over.

It's also difficult to see when the good times might return.

Democrats hold a thin margin in both legislative branches, and the party that controls the White House usually suffers congressional losses during the midterm elections. It's not inevitable that history will repeat itself, but the party's strategies have hinged on getting the big parts of President Biden's agenda passed before the 2022 election season, after which it might be too late. Publicly, at least, there doesn't seem to be much of a Plan B.

Plan A — passing dramatic legislation to address climate change and strengthen the social safety net — always depended on eliminating, or at least weakening, the filibuster. Just to repeat the obvious: Democrats have just 50 votes and Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaker vote in the 100-member Senate; it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. As long as Republican obstruction is a given and aided by the rules, Democrats can't honestly promise a bold or innovative governing agenda. The best they can offer voters is relative competence in day-to-day governing, and maybe the occasional goodie in a reconciliation bill. Competence is important, as we saw during Donald Trump's mishandling of the COVID-19 emergency. But it's not terribly compelling — not to voters, and certainly not to the activists who provide the party with foot soldiers and energy at election time.

There's a danger when commenting on politics to believe that the way things are now is the way they will always be. But it's also the case that the Democrats are stymied by gridlock and — through gerrymandering, vote restrictions, and demographics — face a future with an ever-narrower path to power. It will take something dramatic to change that equation. Otherwise, you have to wonder if the end is near.