Over the course of nine months, Sen. Tommy Tuberville has held up more than 400 military nominations over a Pentagon policy refunding travel costs for servicemembers who have to seek abortions out of their home state. But if you think Tuberville’s obstructionism is a ready-made attack ad, Democrats say it’s not so simple.
Democrats have, of course, gone after Tuberville. President Joe Biden has been vocal about his disdain for Tuberville’s strategy, blaming him and GOP enablers in Congress for harming defense readiness and troop morale.
“The Republican Party used to always support the military, but today, they’re undermining the military,” Biden said at an event in July. “The senior senator from Alabama—who claims to support our troops—is now blocking operations with his extreme political agenda.”
Also in July, the White House conspicuously decided to keep the U.S. Space Command headquarters in Colorado, undoing a Trump-era plan to move the HQ to Alabama. The White House has denied any connection between Tuberville’s holds and the change in headquarter location, but Alabama political observers have certainly noted a potential connection.
The Pentagon itself got in on the public Tuberville flogging tour in September, when Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, and Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth published an op-ed in The Washington Post. And during a CNN interview, Del Toro went a step further, accusing Tuberville of “aiding and abetting communists.”
Even Senate Republicans are admitting there’s a problem here, as they watch a colleague play games with national defense.
“We’re clearly losing some support in the military community, which has always been a great source of strength for our party,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) told The Daily Beast last week.
But Democrats are suddenly facing questions about whether they’ve done enough to turn the heat up on Tuberville.
Politico recently ran a piece by politics bureau chief Jonathan Martin on how Biden could turn around his re-election troubles, and Martin asked a pointed question: “How has Biden not made the GOP pay more for Tuberville’s blockade?”
“He or Harris should go to a military base town (say one in Georgia or Arizona), stand with veterans and lambaste him,” Martin said.
But there may be a lot more to the Democratic strategy than just shaming Tuberville. In fact, Democrats insist they’ve navigated the standoff thoughtfully—and have tried to do more than just go after a college football coach-turned-senator.
“So far, Joe Biden has played the situation well by allowing the political costs to mount, to the point that Tuberville's stunt has hurt Republican polling in Alabama and turned the issue into another toxic topic for GOP candidates,” Democratic strategist Max Burns told The Daily Beast.
“This is an issue Republicans are stuck with because they lack the party coherence to force an end to a losing battle,” Burns said.
Yes, Democrats have a political win on their hands. Yes, they know Tuberville has chosen a politically unpopular topic—abortion—and taken a hostage that is even more politically unpopular to play games with: national defense.
But the opportunity for Democrats is bigger than one GOP senator. And the consequences of making Tuberville famous for becoming a foil to Biden are obvious—he’d become famous for being a foil to Biden.
“He certainly has a greater recognition now than ever before. I'm sure he is thrilled when he gets his clips every day,” Mary Kaszynski, director of government relations at progressive veterans organization VoteVets.
Plus, other Republicans are liable to try other stunts, over other issues, perhaps picking one that is less politically toxic but could still grind the Senate—where any one motivated lawmaker can hold up action—to a halt.
But as Burns put it to The Daily Beast, for any play to boost Tuberville or any Republican’s profile to work, “you actually need to win the fights you enter.”
With Tuberville far from winning the fight on abortion in the military and the majority of Alabamians fed up with their senators’ holds, Democrats see a political opportunity.
As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said, “the distinction between Democrats and Republicans is an important one.”
“The Tuberville holds are a perfect place to see both the extremism of the Republican Party, and its willingness to ignore the consequences for the protection of our nation,” she said.
Top Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), have said it’s on Republicans to solve the problem. Democrats have spent much of the past year privately working behind the scenes while publicly instructing Republicans to clean up their own mess.
“Very simply, the onus is on Republican senators to prevail on Senator Tuberville and get him to back off his reckless pursuit. That is the crux of the matter,” Schumer said in a July floor speech.
“It’s on the backs of his Republican colleagues to get Senator Tuberville to back off. It’s hurting our military security,” he continued. “It’s dangerous, unprecedented, and they have the power and the ability to stop him from doing it.”
If that language seems designed to connect more Republicans to Tuberville’s strategy, that’s no accident.
The rhetoric has put the ball in the GOP’s court, and forced Senate Republicans to navigate a situation where two issues dear to the party platform—the military and restricting abortion access—are pit against each other. The issue has fractured the Senate GOP as some hardliners side with Tuberville while others, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have scolded one of their own.
Only recently have Democrats taken procedural steps to override Tuberville. Schumer has led votes to fill vacancies on the Joint Chiefs. And last week, Democrats on the Senate Rules Committee took steps to circumvent Tuberville’s holds; a proposed rule change passed through the committee 9-7, with no help from Republicans.
Although Republicans haven’t fully abandoned Tuberville, Democrats point to the growing outrage among their Senate counterparts as proof that their strategy is moving the needle.
“All of those things are possible because Democrats have successfully laid the groundwork to make this case to the American people and put pressure on their colleagues,” said Colin Seeberger, senior adviser at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Seeberger isn’t worried about Democratic messaging emboldening Tuberville either, saying the Alabamian is more concerned with pushing his anti-abortion agenda than with elevating his own star power.
“I think that Senator Tuberville, he is animated here, not by what Democrats do versus his willingness to punish people who've served the country in pursuit of his extreme, far-right ideological agenda that is out of the mainstream with most Americans,” Seeberger told the Daily Beast.
There is some disagreement about what exactly is motivating Tuberville—some Democrats said he was in it for the fame and warned about feeding into the frenzy, while others said Tuberville was just a true abortion zealot—but most agreed the senator seemed to have lost the plot.
“It's unclear what Tuberville's endgame is, or if he even has one anymore,” Burns said. “He's not behaving like a guy with any coherent strategy.”
While some Republicans have condemned Tuberville, the push from Democrats doesn’t appear to be persuading Tuberville to back down.
Tuberville has denied Democratic arguments that abortion access is important for military recruitment, that acting officials aren’t equipped to take on their jobs, and that the Senate can not vote on the military nominations individually.
“Then they said the hold was hurting readiness,” said a Tuberville spokesperson. “Then seven months after the hold began, General Milley said our readiness is the best it has been in years. Democrats have been wrong every step of the way.”
In short, if Democrats thought there would be some modicum of regret from Tuberville, they’ll be disappointed.
But again, Democrats say this issue is a rare opportunity that transcends party lines. It’s not that Democrats are going to let it go or not campaign on it; it’s that they’re giving Tuberville and Republicans more rope. You may see a Biden event at some point. For now, it’s been outside groups just helping to frame the narrative.
VoteVets has particularly taken up that effort, spending nearly $500,000 on ad buys countering the holds since May. Two of their ads—costing a total of $200,000—have targeted Alabama and Florida, home of Tuberville ally Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL).
“Senators have been playing politics with our military, blocking hundreds of promotions, leaving holes up the chain of command that risk our national security and Rick Scott’s been AWOL on it,” a Florida veteran said in the ad blasting Scott.
And to further put the screws to Republicans, in September, the group posted over 300 photos of the stalled nominees on a lawn outside the Capitol.
Public pressure from Democrats is something Warren, a member of the Armed Services Committee, called for in September. In an MSNBC interview, Warren called for Democrats to “turn up the heat on that and for all of the Democrats to be involved.”
“He deserves every ugly term that gets thrown at him,” she said.
Asked last week if Democrats should be doing more to highlight Tuberville’s holds, Warren didn’t answer the question directly. But she said that, for her, it’s about reminding “the American people every day about the difference between Democrats and Republicans.”
“We’re trying to keep our military up and functional in a dangerous world,” she said. “Republicans are busy playing politics and pursuing their efforts to block access to basic health care. Damn.”