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Opinion | ‘Republicans Are Very, Very Close to Driving Democracy Into a Ditch’

[MUSIC PLAYING]

jane coastin

Today on “The Argument,” is bipartisanship total bull [EXPLETIVE]? [MUSIC PLAYING]

archived recording

I want to get a bipartisan deal on as much as we can get a bipartisan deal on. Just a couple of months ago, we were hearing from President Biden that he was going to unify the country and that we were going to work together and have bipartisanship. I’m still waiting, Mr. President.

archived recording (mitch mcconnell)

Yeah, 100% of our focus is on stopping this new administration.

jane coaston

Mitch McConnell has made it pretty clear what Senate Republicans’ goal is over the next four years — block everything, whether it’s the new infrastructure bill Biden has proposed, immigration reform, or universal healthcare. But Biden and his administration continue to meet with Republicans to try and hash out deals. With his Memorial Day deadline looming, Biden has already knocked off $550 billion from his initial infrastructure bill. To many, he seems to be trying to make the kind of compromises that most Americans say they want to see in Congress and their bills. But do they?

I’m Jane Coaston, and I think bipartisanship sounds nice in theory, but it’s increasingly impossible. I think the entire ethos of unity and working together relies on a very specific type of politics and a particular type of political party that we don’t have right now— or maybe we haven’t really ever had. And why should Biden have to focus on unity? It’s not like we expected Donald Trump to give as much as he took. My guests today disagree about whether Biden must compromise or if Democrats should go it alone. Biden may have less than two years to get a lot done. Is there time for bipartisanship? Jason Grumet is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Aaron Belkin is director of Take Back the Court, an advocacy group working to expand the Supreme Court. They’ve also been arguing for decades — first, as debate partners in college and now as heads of organizations with missions that are sometimes in direct opposition. First and foremost, I know you two have been debate partners for years. Have you debated the merits of compromise and bipartisanship before?

aaron belkin

That’s all we do.

jason grumet

So Aaron and I in college were debate partners. And we had actually the glorious experience of debating against all manner of other people. I think this is the first time we’ve actually ever had a chance to debate with each other, which is what’s got us so fun about.

jane coaston

Ooh.

aaron belkin

Although our conversations involve a lot of kind of harder disagreements and interruptions, so at an internal level, yeah, it is true.

jane coaston

Perfect. So Jason, convince me I should want bipartisanship. Because over the past couple of years, what I’ve learned is that bipartisanship means nothing happens.

jason grumet

All right, I’m here to make the sale, but I’m game. Big picture, it is an imperfect exercise. But what makes the United States of America fundamentally different than all other countries is this idea of, out of many, one, right? America is this incredible diversity of perspectives. And what has made our country, I believe, truly unique is the commitment that we have struggled with to blend these various perspectives into one set of coherent national views. And without pretending for a moment that that has ever been a graceful or perfect experience, it has fundamentally created stronger and far more durable policy in this country than in any kind of parliamentary system. I really believe that if we give up on this fundamental premise that our political system requires the folks who have a little bit more power than the others to step back and actually try to collaborate, I think we’re giving up on something much greater than infrastructure or even climate legislation. I think we are actually abandoning the core idea that differentiates this country from other nations in the world. And we would regret it for centuries.

jane coaston

But a lot of other countries do versions of bipartisanship. Germany has grand bargains every 15 seconds, mixed member proportional parliamentary systems, basically put parties together in a bag and then shake them up and then you get policy. What’s the difference between that type of system and what you’re talking about?

jason grumet

Well, so Jane, just as an outset, the like, hey, let’s be more like Europe, never really been an appealing idea to the American democracy. So look, there’s lots of different ways that we could rewrite the Constitution if we were starting today, right? It’s easy to say, wouldn’t it be lovely if Democrats and Republicans could go off by themselves and write all the rules? That’s just not an option. And so, if the premise is, let’s have a Constitutional Convention, I got to tell you, I’d actually stick with the one we had a couple hundred years ago than what I imagine folks would write if they had a chance today.

jane coaston

Aaron, what do you think?

aaron belkin

I think that if we weren’t in a moment of normal politics that it would make sense to talk about bipartisan solutions and bipartisan compromises and policy durability. But we are not in a moment of normal politics. And the very idea of bipartisan shrouds that problem and cloaks the key threat to democracy and obscures that the GOP elected officials who were trying to reach bipartisan compromises with are trapped by a triangular alliance of the Koch network and Fox News and 74 million resentment voters. And that if you want to talk about policy durability, I mean, we have a lot of very retrograde, terrible policies and lack of policy in this country that is quite durable, even though Republicans and Democrats on the street want those policies. So sure, bipartisanship is something we should strive for in theory, and on paper, it looks good. But in this moment, bipartisanship is a fantasy that prevents us from rescuing democracy and from putting in place bold policies that we need to address emergencies like climate.

jason grumet

So that’s good stuff. I got to tell you, that’s an idea. And there’s some compelling stuff there. And I fundamentally do agree that we have to think seriously about our election laws and whether, in fact, Congress is, in fact, having the incentives to represent effectively the interest of the people. However, the last four years were terrible for democracy. But the idea that we should let four years of one president kind of break our democracy and give up on it, again, is kind of shortsighted. So first of all, it’s working better than you might think. I know that the common narrative is that Congress is getting nothing done. And we should talk about that a little bit. They passed a $35 billion water infrastructure bill, 89 to 2, legislation that’s going to help places like Flint, Michigan get the lead out of their pipes. They’re moving forward on the January 6 commission, which is a terribly difficult thing for the Republican Party. So I’m not saying it’s good. And I’m not saying that this is a normal moment. But it’s not as broken as people want to claim. And ultimately, I think it is extremely shortsighted to imagine that because one party has a little bit of majority now, it’s going to have a little bit of majority for a while.

jane coaston

Aaron, I want to go back to something quickly because I know you want to respond there. But you said that bipartisanship was appropriate for a time of normal politics, but this isn’t that moment. When did we have normal politics? I was born in 1987. I have never known normal politics or whatever normalcy would look like. I remember Newt Gingrich screaming about the contract with America and shutting down the government in ‘95. So it seems to me that we keep thinking about this halcyon time of normalcy. But has there ever really been one?

aaron belkin

No, I wouldn’t talk about a halcyon time of normalcy. But what I would say is that the Republican Party in this moment is one of the greatest threats to, I would say, the survival of civilization because of their refusal to acknowledge climate catastrophe. And the Republican Party now is so radical. And the idea of bipartisanship in this moment cloaks that threat. We just had an attempted coup launched by a president of the United States, and 147 members of Congress voted to overturn election results. What that tells us is that the Republicans are very, very close to driving democracy into a ditch.

jane coaston

Part of this seems to be that if they think Democrats are insane and we think Republicans are insane, or you do, is that getting in the way here? How do we think about this?

jason grumet

We are in a moment where the two parties have real enmity for each other. And ideas about socialists and fascists and Nazis are now being bandied about as if it’s kind of part of a casual conversation. And it turns out that it’s about perspective. And if we allow one party to so vilify the other party and take all of the safety guards out of the system, beware, right? I mean, imagine what the Republican Party could have done 20 years ago, had they had a majority when the contract with America was passed. I mean, do you remember that legislation? It basically put incredible restrictions on the right to choose. It said that families that were already on welfare couldn’t get any more money if they had more kids. It was a set of activities which all polled over 60%, according to the Republicans. They came into office, and they did not have unified control. And they were not able to pass all those measures. And if you look back under the Trump administration, there were things that were filibustered by Democrats. Now under the Obama administration, there were a lot of things that you and Aaron would probably love, many of which I do, too, which were filibustered by Republicans. But the point is, at this moment, when there is so much hostility, this is the absolute worst time to take all of the controls out of the system. Because guess what? Every time a party wins the presidency, they claim they have a mandate. They never do, ever. We switch parties back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And the inability to imagine the bad things that could happen is really remarkable to me.

aaron belkin

So Jason is confusing polarization for asymmetric polarization. Like, yeah, both of the parties say bad things about each other. But the problem is that the Republican Party is no longer a conservative party. It’s a party whose ideology is pseudo populism. It’s a party whose purpose is injuring scapegoats. And when an entire party is committed to injuring scapegoats, you can’t compromise with that party. The only way to fix the system is to unrig the system, to make sure that there’s an incentive for the Republicans to stop trying to just juice their base, but to pursue a median voter theorem. And what that would mean would be getting rid of voter suppression, getting rid of gerrymandering, getting rid of dark money. And unfortunately, the Republicans will not be part of that unrigging, so the Democrats have to unrig the system.

jane coaston

Well, because I also think the point currently of the Republican Party — and I’m trying to put this in the most objective way — Mitch McConnell’s entire objective is to stymie this administration. That is the point. They don’t want to make government work. So Jason, what does that leave us here? Because if Republicans just want to — they’ve said outright, we want to obstruct Joe Biden. Why should Joe Biden say, let me work with you and not just use the energy of like, you voted for me because you hated this other guy. Let’s give the voters what they want.

jason grumet

So, look, I founded and run an organization called the Bipartisan Policy Center. So being ganged up on is not unusual for me. But I will tell you that you are both bringing this tautological premise to the debate. One way or another, Aaron has said, all Republicans are fundamentally just interested in the destruction of democracy. You have just said essentially all Republicans are solely interested in obstructing Joe Biden. And it’s just not true. Some are, and some Democrats are, too. And I’m not suggesting perfect symmetry. But it is a self-fulfilling prophecy to assert that the other side is so venal that therefore we just have to break the system and go our own way. And it is irresponsible to not take any responsibility in this dynamic for why the Republicans are acting the way they do. Democracy is a team sport. Democrats have loved bipartisanship in the days when Democrats had total control of government. We love talking about the New Deal. Well, guess what? When FDR took office, he had a real mandate. When the country has a real mandate, it should act like it. When you have the tiniest sliver, a 50-50 Senate, the tiniest sliver of control, and you act like you, in fact, now should ignore the other party, you’ve just given up. I mean, it’s just not the country that we all believe we have if, in fact, we’re simply going to say, if you have one more vote in the Senate, everyone, get out of the way.

jane coaston

What is better about a bill that passes with one Republican? And I keep thinking about the pieces of bipartisan legislation that have passed in my lifetime, and some of them have been hot trash. If you get both parties on board, that does not guarantee that things are good.

jason grumet

It creates the best and the worst legislation. No question about it, right? You either have principled legislation where people are coming together to get stuff done, or you have the crazies from both parties meeting around the backside of the moon. Both things are possible. But the two reasons why it matters is that the process of having to have your notions challenged by people who disagree with you tends to lead to better outcome. And more important, we implement rules and laws better when there’s a little bit of buy-in on both sides.

aaron belkin

No. [LAUGHTER]

I just don’t know where to begin. Our institutions are distorted now. You have a Senate that’s divided 51-50, even though Democratic senators represent 41 million more people than Republican senators. And so we have a system in which the institutions are clogged by —

jason grumet

It’s called the Constitution with the U.S. Senate. I mean, it might be inconvenient, but it’s what we got.

aaron belkin

Well, it’s clogged you could also say by a generation of hyper partisan gerrymandering of voter suppression and of dark money flooding into it.

jason grumet

Aaron, there’s no districts in the Senate. There’s no gerrymandering in the US Senate. You cannot gerrymander a state. It might be inconvenient because it is not majoritarian, but it was the basic premise of the place, right? And you remember the grand compromise, right?

aaron belkin

I said it was not just hyper partisan gerrymandering, but it was also dark money, which has had an impact on the Senate. But look, we have a system in which it’s too hard to pass a law. And if you look at the social science, literature, and also European countries that Jason says we don’t want to imitate, they have better policy solutions to almost every problem that we’re trying to deal with. And they have fewer veto points than we have. And so, we have four veto points that laws have to get by in order to become the law of the land. And each of our veto points is subject to minority capture, which means that as the Republicans represent an ever shrinking percentage of white people, they get to rule only through minority rule. Yeah, it would make sense to look for bipartisan compromises if the politicians in Washington represented the people of this country. But the institutions are so distorted that you have one party that is effectively trying to burn the house down, while the other party is trying to solve the country’s problems.

jane coaston

But I mean, I just keep thinking about examples of time and time again of which we’ve seen legislation that, in my view, should not have passed or moved too quickly with FASTA or CESTA or any host of legislation that I think violated the civil liberties of individuals and minorities. I think it should be pretty hard to pass a law.

aaron belkin

It makes sense to be able to deliberate before you pass a law, but it’s too sticky in the United States. President Obama took a year to take Republican input and then couldn’t get any Republicans to buy into a Republican healthcare plan that Mitt Romney had designed.

jason grumet

And it was a better law because of it, and they ultimately did fall back on a one party vote. I want to talk what ifs, right? I mean, I think that we obviously, if we’re going to — if we’re talking seriously, not just having a philosophical conversation about political — if we’re seriously talking about changing the democracy, we have to talk about what ifs. And we don’t have to go back as far as the contract for America. If you talk to the progressive community, the group was pretty careful about getting on board this, let’s do it our way, is the pro-choice community. Because they rightfully realize that had it not been for the filibuster as recently as 18 months ago, abortion would be even more restrictive than it is today. There was a bill that passed with 51 votes in the US Senate called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have made it illegal under almost every circumstance for a woman to have an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But for the rules we have in place, that would be law today. So just imagine that we, in fact, took all the guardrails off, and just imagine, as has happened every single four years, we switch political parties, think about what you’re setting yourself up for. When Harry Reid and the Democrats blew up the filibuster on judges in 2013, I assure you, they did not imagine that Donald Trump would be elected president, that you’d have a Republican majority, that he’d confirm three Supreme Court judges. And that’s because you can’t imagine —

aaron belkin

If Harry Reid had not eliminated the filibuster for executive appointments in lower court judges, then Donald Trump would have inherited 200 lower court openings, instead of 100 lower court openings. The reason that he had to get rid of the filibuster in 2013 was that the Republicans were not allowing President Obama to seat lower court judges. And so, there was no other options. Jason says, if we change democracy, then these terrible things would happen. We’ve already changed democracy. We’ve changed democracy when we banned Black and Brown voters — oh, and by the way, white voters — from the polls. So democracy is changing all the time. Getting rid of the filibuster does not mean, quote unquote, “getting rid of all of the guardrails.” To become a law, a bill would still have to pass through the House and the Senate and the White House and survive judicial review. It would just mean that it would be a little bit less difficult to pass a law. [MUSIC PLAYING]

archived recording

Hi, this is Mike from Wilmington, Delaware. And the thing that we have been having argument about is two terms for the president. And it seems like the incentives are too perverse for people to run for re-election. And it really should just be one six-year term. And then the person could run again following a six-year hiatus. That’s my argument.

jane coaston

What are you arguing about with your family, your friends, your frenemies? Tell me about the big debate you’re having in a voicemail by calling 347-915-4324, and we might play an excerpt of it on a future episode. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Aaron, when people say that oh, we want the Republicans to hold the Senate before the Georgia special elections, we want bipartisanship, what are they saying?

aaron belkin

Yeah, I think they’re saying that they don’t want extremists to take over the government. And I think they’re saying that they want politicians in Washington to work together to solve problems. And people are complex, and public opinion is complex. And so that desire for cooperation at an optical or performative or even substantive level sit side by side by an actual desire that actual politicians solve actual problems. And as we all know, the public is not getting that from Washington. And so, there is a contradiction in terms of wanting cooperation, but also wanting the solutions that the bipartisan fantasy prevents us from obtaining.

jason grumet

Look, I think we see that all the time. You know, we see that there are polls which say the public loves the American Rescue Plan. 70%, 65% of the public, and so that will have Aaron say, well, look, of course, this shows you that you can have bipartisan support for a partisan agenda. I would say that people like free stuff. There’s also, though, polls that show that 2 to 1, Americans want Biden to make major changes to his proposals to win Republican support. So there’s just a fundamental contradiction, which I suggest means we shouldn’t govern by polling. I think the other point, though, that we sometimes lose a little bit is the question of what the party in power’s role is in collaboration. Because it’s pretty easy to say, oh, look at those terrible Republicans. But just look at this moment right now on infrastructure legislation, right? It’s a big deal, right? The president proposed a $2 trillion plan. The Senate Republicans have an $800 billion plan. And so the question is, should they negotiate or not? That’s probably the most significant, can democracy work, moment we’re looking at. So think about yourself as a Republican. You’re trying to figure out do you negotiate with President Biden? And at the same time, the Democrats are saying, oh, and then we’re going to do reconciliation. What motivation is there right now for Republicans to really strain to negotiate for a trillion dollar piece of legislation that has climate change protections and broadband? What’s the motivation for them to do that if what they’re being told is as soon as they do that, then the White House is just going to go back in with one party, do everything they would have wanted to do anyways?

aaron belkin

I think we’re missing the big picture. Yeah, we can try to collaborate with Republicans to pass an infrastructure bill. Maybe we can pick off a few Republicans and get that collaboration. I mean, we can waste a lot of time trying to get that. But that’s not what this moment is about. When historians look back at this moment, they’re going to ask, why were we so blind to the likelihood that democracy is about to end? And they’re going to ask why people like Jason were focused on the micro nuances of what some member of Congress wants, when the action on the Republican side is not about the GOP? It’s about the politics of scapegoating. It’s about 74 million Trump voters who like to inflict pain. The Trump voters are not trying to solve problems. The Trump voters and the Koch network and Fox —

jason grumet

That’s where I got to interrupt you. It’s offensive to 74 million people. The assertion that all the Republicans want to do is obstruct President Biden, it’s just not true. I mean, it’s easy to come up with these caricatures of the other side and then say, oh, look how bad they are. Let’s get rid of the system. When Tocqueville was studying the US, he made one point that I thought was very important. And what he said was that one of the unique things about America is not that we are more righteous or more evolved, but we have a unique ability to make what he calls repairable mistakes, that there was kind of a superpower ballast in the American constitutional system that allowed us, as we were going towards the edge in one way or another, to kind of pull that structure back to center. Most members of Congress, Republican and Democrats, are good people with bad incentives. And I think we can do things to change those incentives that will make the democracy, again, start to function better for the American people.

jane coaston

So if you’ve convinced me that bipartisanship has some merit, that thinking like this has some merit, what does that mean that Biden should do now, Jason?

jason grumet

So I think at this very moment, there’s a lot riding on infrastructure legislation, right? So President Biden came in. He had said he was going to move forward emergency relief under Covid. We were still under the metaphor of emergency. Despite the fact that we passed bipartisan law under Trump three times for emergency relief, I think President Biden was like, I’m just going to get this done. And they put forward the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. It was done in a partisan fashion. OK, I get it, right? I’m not saying every single thing has to be bipartisan all the time. There was a moment there where there was a justification. But now we’re talking about public policy. We’re talking about investing taxpayer money in 5 and 10-year policy changes. I think the administration needs to make it clear that it’s not just going to do a head fake, that it is truly going to try to pass this bill through the regular process. Democracy is a momentum game. If you get infrastructure legislation passed, well, there’s a lot of pieces in CARES Plan that has bipartisan support. There’s been a strong history of bipartisan support for paid leave, a strong history of bipartisan support for investing in childcare. In the last tax bill that I think most people felt was not a particularly bipartisan piece of legislation, there were significant increases in child tax credit that Marco Rubio brought forward. And I mean, we can go through a lot of different— I mean, there’s room on climate change. We’re going to be investing in significant clean energy solutions. There’s a lot of public policy that this country could make. And maybe we’ll fail. But I think it’d be a huge mistake not to actually make a serious effort to succeed.

aaron belkin

This makes me really sad because the one thing that Joe Biden and the Democrats don’t have is time. And the Republicans are trying to run out the clock. I mean, Jason remembers full well when Lindsey Graham dragged the White House along for a year. He was going to be the one Republican vote on climate change. And then, at the end, he pulled out after they wasted a year trying to get a climate change bill. And the Obama administration couldn’t pass it. Sure, you can occasionally pick off a Republican to support Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal. You can occasionally pick off a Republican here and there to support things on the margins. And those are not unimportant. And of course, Joe Biden should make a heartfelt effort to get Republican support for the legislation he cares about. But they will run out the clock if he gives them a time to do that. And meanwhile, the fantasy of bipartisanship is allowing moderates like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin to cover themselves under the guise of bipartisanship while they’re blocking structural reform and bold policy solutions that the public would support, that Republicans will never allow to become law, and that the country desperately needs. There was no climate change clock when Tocqueville was writing. We don’t have time to impose the policies that we need to solve these problems.

jason grumet

Aaron just told you that there would be climate change legislation unless Lindsey Graham bailed out. It’s not true. They did not put a good bill together. They never had more than 42 votes. They were never close to passing climate change legislation. But in this narrative of our side versus your side, what gets remembered after the fact is kind of a self reinforcing narrative of, we would have got it done if it wasn’t for Republicans. It’s not true. John Kerry drove that bill into the ditch all by himself. There was nobody there to help him. Lindsey Graham did not make a difference.

jane coaston

Aaron, you were talking about Trump voters, but I think it’s worth noting that there were millions of people in Florida and elsewhere who voted for Trump at the top of the ticket, but they also voted to raise the minimum wage and to legalize medical marijuana. Voters are heterodox. Is there some way of merging the middle here to make this work for those voters? You are shaking your head, and that makes me sad.

aaron belkin

If you were willing to give up on civil rights and to give up on the politics of scapegoating. I mean, the reason we had a New Deal coalition was because Roosevelt was willing to turn a blind eye to apartheid in the South. And so if you want to get white people to buy into a progressive agenda, you have to give up on civil rights, in other words.

jason grumet

So look, let me just say that America is better than the last 4 and 1/2 years. But I don’t think many people would have believed in 2006, that we were going to elect Barack Obama to be president. And I’m not saying that that was the end of racism as we know it. But we as a country are remarkably complicated. Leaders matter. We had an extremely divisive, incredibly painful experience for this country that revealed that there’s a tremendous amount of work left to do. And yes, I think that there is a next leader who can move past the kind of virulent us against them scapegoating that we saw over the last four years. And I want the democracy to have a chance to elect that person. I think that if we go this route of basically saying Democrats are going to just run the table for two years and then we’re going to let Republicans run the table for two years, we will have lost that possibility.

aaron belkin

You’re not going to be able to become president as a Republican unless you buy into the big lie. And the incentives are pushing Republicans in a more and more extreme direction every day.

jason grumet

I think it’s about degree, right? I think Aaron is absolutely right that there are changes that we can make to our democracy which strengthen and improve it, but don’t take away that fundamental obligation for the majority to work with the minority.

jane coaston

On that note, thank you both so much. Jason Grumet is the founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. And Aaron Belkin is the director of Take Back the Court and a professor of political science at San Francisco State University. Again, thank you.

aaron belkin

Thank you.

jason grumet

And my best friend.

aaron belkin

And mine, too.

jane coastin

Aw.

aaron belkin

But he’s wrong about all this stuff.

jason grumet

Everything, yeah, that’s right.

jane coaston

If you want to learn more, I recommend The Times Opinion guest essay, “You Don’t Actually Need to Reach Across the Aisle, Mr. Biden,” by John Lawrence, former chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi. You can also read more about the compromise infrastructure legislation the Bipartisan Policy Center has proposed in their report called “From Sea to Shining Sea.” You can find links to all of these in their episode notes. Finally, a podcast recommendation. I’ve been listening to the podcast “Imposters, The Spy,” the story of Wayne Simmons, who either served 27 years at the CIA or lied about it. Is he an American hero? Was he a giant liar? Did Fox News help to prop him up? Again, that’s the podcast, “Imposters, The Spy.” Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

“The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez, and Vishakha Darbha; edited by Alison Bruzek and Paula Szuchman; with original music and sound design by Isaac Jones; fact-checking by Kate Sinclair; and audio strategy by Shannon Busta. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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