In the Wilderness

12.31.14 10:45 AM ET

The Democrats’ Black Hole—and What They Can Do About It

The new Senate will be even harder right than you thought, and there’s little the 45 Democratic senators will be able to accomplish. But there’s a smarter way they can play defense.

Here’s an under-discussed reality of the new, Mitch McConnell-led Senate that’s about to take over: The Senate Republican caucus is very likely to be far more conservative than anything we’ve seen. Nine new Republican senators will swear their oaths of office. By my measurement, only one, West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, is what you’d call a basic mainstream conservative. The other eight are varying degrees of out there.

North Carolina’s Thom Tillis ran against an even more extreme Tea Partier, so the media sometimes called him mainstream or even moderate, but as speaker of the state House he helped push through the radical-right agenda of Gov. Pat McCrory that led to the Moral Monday protests. The new senators from Louisiana and Arkansas are about what you’d reckon. And then there are the people no one gave a thought to in October and November because their races weren’t contested. But people like Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and Montana’s Steve Daines are going to be senators, and they ran with Tea Party backing.

So not only will the GOP have control in the Senate, it will move the center of gravity on Capitol Hill hard to starboard. What can the Democrats do?

The true answer is “not much.” Forty-five seats, which they’ll have, will give them enough to block stuff, but obviously nothing positive will be enacted. So Democrats will just have to play defense, mostly. But they need to play smart defense.

To me that means taking Chuck Schumer’s recent advice, which I wrote about at the time.The Democrats have to get over their fear of defending government. The central distinguishing feature of this new Republican Congress will probably be that it’s going to launch attacks on government across virtually all of its domestic functions: programs for the poor (and for the middle class, which Medicaid now basically is to a considerable extent); public investment in infrastructure and the like; regulation of all types, especially the environmental kind; and on and on and on. President Obama will veto most of it, but the Republicans will be happy to force every veto, confident that every manufactured showdown over government will be a win for them.

They’ll be confident of that for one reason: Recent history teaches us that the Democrats won’t forcefully defend government. They’ll say things like “Such-and-such Republican initiative goes too far.” Most of them won’t say it’s just morally and practically wrong. That is what Democrats have to spend the next two years doing. And a certain presumed presidential candidate needs to be doing it, too.

Happily, they’re about to get some help. In that first column I wrote about Schumer’s important speech in early December, I argued, as I often have, that it’s infuriating that in all the sprawling liberal infrastructure of groups dedicated to every cause known to humanity, there was no group, none, devoted to the cause of defending the government.

Since writing that column, I’ve learned that I’m not the only person in America who’s been fretting about this black hole and about Democratic fecklessness when it comes to defending government. Dianne Stewart has been, too. That’s how we’re alike. But here’s the difference between us. Whereas I’ve been writing grumpy columns about the problem, arguing that someone ought to go out and raise the money to start a nonprofit group whose sole and explicit mission is the defense of government, Stewart, who has recently been the head of the liberal nonprofit group Public Works, went out and raised the money and did it. Her organization, to be called Indivisible, is starting to launch right now, and I think it’s just what our discourse has needed and has sorely lacked. (The website, which as of now consists of just a homepage stating general principles, is indivisible.us.)

“It’s like America developed an auto-immune disorder a few decades ago and we began attacking the vital organs of our democracy,” Stewart told me just before Christmas. “Indivisible is the antidote, helping Americans remember why we need healthy public institutions through which we can solve challenges we can’t possibly tackle alone.”

What most impressed me in my chat with Stewart is that she sounded committed to the idea that this group and its work can’t be stodgy but should be engaging, witty, edgy, and all the things one never associates with nonprofit political groups. I hope she’s able to remain true to that vision, because as badly as this country needs this organization, a predictable approach would disserve the important task before the group in a really disappointing way.

I believe that it is possible to make government interesting and appealing, and to surprise people with all that government does for them every day that they take for granted and just assume was the handiwork of the “more efficient” private sector. Go to virtually any town of a decent size in the country, especially a college or university town where the research dollars flow, and the government is doing all kinds of good things people don’t know about. Someone just has to tell them. Changing public opinion, of course, will be the work of a generation or maybe two, but kudos to Stewart for getting it started.

In the meantime, Democrats in the Senate need to find ways to take the right stands. When the Republicans come after the EPA, Democrats need to be ready to talk about all that the EPA has accomplished over the years—the rivers and lakes made swimmable and fishable, the polluting power plants made cleaner, and all the rest. I never hear a Democrat talk about these goods, which are, in the literal sense, indivisible—for us all.