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Democrats are putting up a tougher fight than liberals realize

Obama got 12 nominees confirmed in 2 days

As liberals prepare to fight back against Donald Trump and his nascent administration, they are swiftly finding reasons to be disappointed in the elected leadership of the Democratic Party.

Liberal senators like Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren are voting to confirm Ben Carson as secretary of housing and urban development, outraging grassroots progressives.

Democrats are going soft on proposed Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon, setting off even more establishment-oriented outlets like the Center for American Progress’s ThinkProgress blog. And they’re offering a mixed message on Jeff Sessions’s selections to lead the Department of Justice.

Meanwhile, even as congressional Democrats mobilize to stymie Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they say they are trying to call Trump’s bluff on infrastructure spending by introducing their own plan for $1 trillion in direct spending, a political tactic Jonathan Chait denounces as “delusional” on the grounds that anything that gives Trump bipartisan cover on anything will boost his popularity.

In the pungent words of the New Republic’s Clio Chang, “Democrats are already screwing this up” — citing Democrats’ selective willingness to vote yes on some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees.

Lurking in the background is the accurate perception that Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell orchestrated an unprecedented and successful years-long campaign of obstruction to Barack Obama’s agenda, a campaign aimed in part at policy victories but largely at delegitimizing the new president and denying him the halo of bipartisanship. Is it really possible that Democrats have learned so little from the success of McConnell’s “just say nothing” approach?

The reality, however, is that while McConnell certainly did break precedent and certainly did have this kind of strategy, GOP opposition was less across-the-board than it’s remembered in liberal folk history. Obama passed a number of significant bills with Republican support in his first two years in office, and Democrats have, thus far, been drastically less cooperative with Trump’s Cabinet nominees than Republicans were with Obama’s.

McConnell’s success wasn’t that he literally held his caucus together in unanimous opposition to everything. It’s that he made sure the political agenda was dominated by the things he was choosing to oppose — most of all the Affordable Care Act — rather than the things that divided his caucus. Democrats’ core strategy at the moment is to paint Trump as a closet plutocrat, and to focus on aspects of his agenda that point to tax cuts, financial deregulation, school privatization, and health care cutbacks. And their votes have been consistent with that.

Most of Obama’s Cabinet was confirmed quickly

Obama was inaugurated on January 20, standing in front of a record crowd despite the freezing cold weather. The very next day the Senate confirmed six of his Cabinet secretaries — Hillary Clinton, Ken Salazar, Tom Vilsack, Steven Chu, Arne Duncan, and Janet Napolitano. Clinton received two no votes, Duncan and Napolitano received so little opposition that Senate only did unrecorded voice votes, and the other three were literally unanimous. The very next day, the Senate unanimously confirmed Obama’s nominees for HUD, Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, United Nations ambassador, Securities and Exchange Commission chair, and the Council on Environmental Qualities.

Other Obama nominees were more controversial but still had plenty of Republican support. Eric Holder, not exactly a conservative favorite, got 19 Republican votes. Hilda Solis got 24. Ron Kirk got 38. Tim Geithner got 10. Kathleen Sebelius ended up being the most contentious nomination, since anti-abortion groups decided to go hard at her, but she still got nine Republican votes.

At the time, there were only 40 Republican senators, so that meant about a quarter of the GOP caucus was voting for even the most controversial nominees.

Trump’s nominees have received much less support than Obama’s. Even his least controversial nominees like Defense Secretary James Mattis and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have drawn token opposition from someone looking to make a point.

Obama signed lots of bills that got GOP votes

Obama’s legislative agenda, of course, met with considerably more resistance. But though his signature creation of a new health care program — paired with a consequential overhaul of student loans — was famously passed on a strict party line vote, basically nothing else he did was.

That includes a stimulus bill that was backed by three Republicans (one of whom was later run out of the party as a result and became a Democrat) and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation overhaul (backed, like the stimulus, by the two Maine Republicans, this time joined by Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown).

But there was also a whole raft of less controversial — but still consequential — bills that passed with bipartisan majorities:

Beyond those seven measures, the 111th Congress also passed a series of lower-profile economic stimulus measures — an employment benefits extension, a payroll tax holiday, the “cash for clunkers” program — outside of the main stimulus bill, all of which garnered at least a handful of Republican votes.

Republican obstruction really was unprecedented

To be clear, Democrats who say that Obama faced an unprecedented level of partisan opposition are not misremembering.

George W. Bush came into office with a much weaker electoral mandate than Obama, but nonetheless ended up getting a dozen Senate Democrats to vote for his tax cut plan. After the GOP gained seats in the 2002 midterms, Democrats simply chose to allow the GOP to pass a Medicare reform plan without filibustering it, even though the Republicans didn’t have 60 votes to pass the bill.

Democrats were surprised to see that they received no comparable deference on anything. They were also surprised by the GOP leadership’s determination to simply throw as much sand in the gears as possible of many of these bills — using extensive delaying tactics even when they didn’t have the votes to block legislation — in order to chew up floor time and limit the amount Democrats could accomplish. Republicans also used their filibustering prerogatives to delay or block the confirmation of many sub-Cabinet appointees, often for trivial reasons.

Most of all, McConnell ensured that the dominant narrative of Obama’s first year in office was one of highly partisan conflict. The stimulus passed with some GOP votes and was honestly not that substantively different from the Republican alternative. But as the economy continued to deteriorate, Republicans excoriated it as a blunder and a failure. They lured Democrats into a trap on health care, where Chuck Grassley and others maintained a protracted facade of bipartisan negotiations even while party leaders endlessly slagged the reform process. It’s not that nothing else got done so much as nobody heard about anything else.

And — with a not-so-trivial helping hand from objectively bleak background economic conditions — it paid off in the 2010 midterms.

Legislating keeps getting more partisan, activists keep wanting more

Republicans would counter, of course, that this was all merely retaliation for unprecedented Democratic obstruction during the Bush administration. Democrats counter-charge that Bill Clinton faced unprecedented obstruction. Republicans say the real problem was the tactics Democrats used to block Robert Bork’s Supreme Court confirmation back in the 1980s.

The truth is that this is a ratchet that has been shifting for a long time.

In the middle of the 20th century, the two political parties did not offer clearly contrasting ideologies. That meant members of Congress generally felt cross-pressured between partisan and ideological imperatives, and it fostered a broadly cooperative atmosphere. For decades now that has been changing, as both parties have become more ideological and thus members of Congress from both parties face more pressure from their respective activist bases to “stand up to” the other side. This means each new president is greeted by a level of uncooperativeness from the opposition party that is genuinely unprecedented.

The “Reagan Revolution” of 1981-’82 was undertaken even though Democrats held a majority in the House of Representatives because Speaker Tip O’Neil was willing to repeatedly bring Republican bills to the floor that would then pass with the support of a small number of conservative Democrats — a scenario that is totally unthinkable under today’s legislative norms.

Democrats are responding to the Trump administration by offering — so far — an unprecedentedly low level of support for his Cabinet nominees. They are signaling potential willingness to pass an infrastructure spending program that, if it comes together, would essentially amount to Trump coming around to a view Democrats have espoused for years. Meanwhile, there is zero indication of any Democratic support for any Republican Party legislative initiatives to reduce taxes or federal spending.

Given the combination of rising polarization, Trump’s unprecedentedly low approval ratings, and Trump’s unique personal attributes, an unprecedented lack of cross-party support is probably to be expected. But the ratchet of activist expectations has moved even faster than the ratchet of legislative reality, and consequently Democrats currently find themselves disappointing their own supporters, who want them to adopt a posture of root-and-branch opposition that they mistakenly believe McConnell took eight years ago.


Watch: Democrats won the most votes. Why aren’t they acting like it?