On Monday, demoted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that the federal courts belong to Republicans by birthright, and let Joe Biden and Senate Democrats know exactly where they can stick their attempts at bipartisanship.
After voters booted McConnell’s GOP from the White House and the Senate last year—a stinging rejection that inflamed Republican extremism and pushed the party even harder to the right—McConnell told conservative broadcaster Hugh Hewitt he’d likely deny Democrats the ability to confirm a Supreme Court nominee if Republicans regained the Senate in 2022.
As McConnell and his Republican raiders trade in their expired law and order branding for a new and more dangerous message of power by any means, Democrats must treat 2022—not 2024—as the end of Joe Biden’s first term. They have less than a year and a half left to implement their agenda and convince voters to keep them in control in a contest where the field will be tilted against them.
It’s “highly unlikely” a Republican Senate would allow Biden to confirm a nominee in 2023 and “We’ll have to wait and see what happens” in 2023, McConnell told Hewitt on Monday—which should come as no surprise to anyone who watched the Turtle’s historic denial of then-Judge Merrick Garland’s 2016 Supreme Court confirmation hearings under Barack Obama.
At the same time, McConnell expressed no regret about his light-speed campaign to confirm Trump Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett just two weeks before the 2020 election. Hard-line conservatives loved the GOP’s theatrical knifing of Senate Democrats, and even McConnell couldn’t help but gloat. “That took a good deal of priority and skill,” he crowed.
The minority leader’s hostility to functional government infuriates the Democratic activists demanding party leaders adopt a more aggressive footing. And they should be furious: McConnell presided over one of the least productive lawmaking periods in American history. According to Newsweek’s Katherine Fung, only about 1 percent of the 15,000 bills proposed between January 2019 and September 2020 became law. Many of those critical bills passed the House with bipartisan support, only to end their lives in McConnell’s beloved “legislative graveyard.”
“Bipartisanship only exists when both sides are interested in working together,” Democratic activist Michael Starr Hopkins said. “When only one side is interested in compromising while the other is interested in absolute power, it’s called a fool’s errand.”
Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron agrees, saying that “Mitch McConnell will stop at nothing to reshape the federal judiciary and turn the clock back on individuals’ cherished rights and freedoms.”
If Democrats want to hold together their fragile coalition of moderates and progressives, and renew their, well, “contract with America” next year, they need to stop compromising and start fighting.
With the window for an unobstructed Supreme Court confirmation for Biden already closing, speculation is mounting over whether 82-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer, appointed in 1994 by Bill Clinton, will step down at the end of the court’s current term instead of risking decades of decisions from what’s now a 6-3 conservative Court after Trump pushed through three of his own nominees over his four years, as Democrats played by the old rules.
“If this doesn’t convince Breyer to retire this year, he’s even more vain than I could have possibly imagined,” Georgetown Law professor Josh Chafetz told me. If Breyer stays on the bench and Republicans win back the Senate, nothing would stop McConnell except “defections from his own caucus. But Collins and Murkowski were happy to not hold hearings on Garland.”
McConnell and his cronies learned well the lessons of Trumpism. There is no longer any need for GOP lawmakers to spin false narratives about conservatism or principle or patriotism. Perpetuating right-wing power is the singular organizing theory of modern Republicanism. There is no core conservative principle advanced in McConnell’s “a thousand times no” approach to working with a Democratic president and Congress. There are no constituencies better served by inaction and neglect and obstruction. But there is an awful lot of power to be gained, and Democrats skittish about being labeled partisans have so far allowed McConnell to rebuild his army unchecked.
If Senate Democrats are serious about working for the American people, the dwindling time between now and Election 2022 should be a time of focused, bold progressive action. Schumer should be pressing holdouts like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to put up or shut up. And 50-50 votes broken by Vice President Kamala Harris should become the norm if necessary in order to pass critical voting rights, climate, infrastructure and anti-corruption legislation into law.
Republicans like McConnell will use Democrats’ newfound energy to parade their victimhood across the right-wing media jungle, but Democrats should care as little about McConnell’s complaints as he does about ours. Democrats did not win their majority by playing defense, and they will not preserve it by merely preventing additional Republican abuses.
Biden and Democrats will only get one chance to do this right: If McConnell and his reanimated army of far-right state and federal candidates retake the Senate and continue expanding their power in the states in 2022, Democrats may find the judiciary lost to radical Republicanism for a generation.