Democrats have just been mugged by reality: Despite the protests, the urgent phone calls, and the delays, they were unable to stop the confirmation of the Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
While they wounded her politically, forcing a narrow vote in the Senate, DeVos' ascension to the cabinet illustrates the limits of activism from the left in the early era of Donald Trump’s presidency.
It was a tight vote Tuesday: both Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine bucked the Republican party line to join with Democrats, leading to a 50-50 vote in the Senate. Vice President Mike Pence was required to break the tie and confirm DeVos.
"There never has had to be a vice president to break a tie for a cabinet secretary before. So activism convinced Republicans… so look, we're having an impact," Sen. Tim Kaine told The Daily Beast. "We won't win every battle right now, but the activism of people… has got to continue. It shows the best aspects of our system."
Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate, told reporters that his office has received more calls on the DeVos nomination than any other time during his tenure in the Senate, including during the 2013 federal government shutdown. But while Democrats were able to gum up the works—Senate Republicans have complained that the current slate of cabinet confirmations have been the slowest since George Washington— they were unable to block the nominee they were most anxious to prevent from entering office.
"She is the most incompetent cabinet-level nominee I have ever seen," said Democratic Sen. Al Franken.
DeVos is something of an easy target for the left: a billionaire Republican donor with little experience in government or public education. She was voted down by senators representing a wide portion of the ideological spectrum: everyone from moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins to progressive champion Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
"It is a shame that someone who has never been a teacher or administrator, and who holds no degree in education policy, will now helm the agency tasked with educating our children and training our workforce," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who recently replaced a Republican senator from Illinois. "Unfortunately, our children and our nation will suffer the consequences of this decision for decades to come.”
The newly-confirmed Education Secretary drew criticism for her shaky confirmation hearing, during which she appeared unfamiliar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees children with disabilities protections in their schooling. She also made a much-lampooned comment about why guns should be permitted in schools.
"Mrs. DeVos cited that grizzly bears in Wyoming is one legitimate reason why guns should be allowed in schools. Yet, the vast majority of our nation’s schools face zero threat of an attack from grizzly bears that would justify the risk of allowing guns on their premises," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said after the vote Tuesday afternoon.
Still, the former vice presidential candidate tried to see the brighter side of things—that Democratic activism has sent a shot across the bow of the Trump administration, and will continue to send a message of opposition where appropriate.
"People who have authoritarian tendencies, and sadly our president and some of his advisers, they don't like it—they don't like criticism or peaceful protest,” Kaine said. “But what we're showing is that, whether it's in Congress, or in peaceful protests, or in the courts, whether it's online—we're not going to just go away quietly, when someone is hurting our values, and hurting our people, and hurting our country."