(This column has been updated throughout to reflect the Senate's early-morning health-care votes.)
In the wee hours Friday morning, we got a glimpse of what it could look like if the Republican Party was stripped of full control of Congress. Ironically, that glimpse came courtesy of three of their own: Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and the surprise of the night: John McCain, who shut down Mitch McConnell’s Senate norms-shattering attempt to ram through a “skinny” Obamacare repeal with just two hours of debate (one of which was devoured by Wyoming’s Mike Enzi, who engaged in a talk-a-thon transparently desired to deny Democrats the chance to ask questions about the bill they’d only just been shown).
Millions of Americans narrowly escaped a catastrophe of Trumpian proportions. Chuck Schumer held his minority caucus together in defense of the Affordable Care Act and even found a way to co-opt McCain, who clearly saw last night’s performance, coupled with his big speech on returning to “regular order” as his legacy piece. The GOP’s two toughest women Senators held their ground. America saw what it could look like if a Senate truly independent of Donald Trump, and free from McConnell’s one party state machinations, existed. But make no mistake: at least two of the three renegade Senators (Murkowski and McCain) voted against McConnell’s tactics, not the core idea of repealing and replacing Obamacare. And the threat to millions of people’s healthcare was dodged by the thinnest of hairs, and in no small part due to a furious resistance movement that didn’t quit. The battle has been won, but by no means the war.
So while you’re breathing a deep sigh of relief, Democrats, now is the time to hit the accelerator, not the brakes. Cancel the focus groups. Junk the lame slogans. (What does “a better deal” even mean, anyway?) Take stock of where you are – where we are as a country given the dire condition of the presidency and the alternatively vulturous and supine impulses of the congressional majority, and formulate a plan to pull us decisively back toward a normal state of governance.
The last-minute dramatics notwithstanding, Democrats cannot count on the GOP holdouts forever. McCain’s maverick instincts have proved notably inconsistent over the years. Only putting control of the Congress in the opposition party’s hands can permanently secure the right to healthcare for tens of millions of people, including access to Medicaid and protecting Medicare from Paul Ryan’s undying dream of repealing the 20th century and replacing it with luxurious tax cuts for the very rich.
And on national security, after months of hearings in which even the media’s favorite Republicans consistently divert attention from Trump to Clinton, and where some in the GOP now want a second special counsel, to go after Trump’s political opponents, only Democrats stand ready to rein in a president in full meltdown over Russiagate before he does something drastic, like arranging for the firing of Bob Mueller.
Barely half a year in, Trump’s miserable and norm-shattering presidency already has the feel of a despot flailing through his final days clinging to power, making a change of leadership on Capitol Hill all the more urgent. He and his team announced a plan to turn trans people’s military service into a Karl Rovian campaign ornament to give his base in exchange for the wall he can’t build and the trade agreements he can’t cancel. He had his interior secretary threaten to destroy Alaska’s economy to try and bludgeon Murkowski into agreeing to take away her constituents’ healthcare and thus deliver the GOP’s King Joffrey his “win.” (Luckily, the strongarm tactic failed). Worse, Trump and 49 Republicans in the United States Senate didn’t even care what was in the “skinny repeal” bill, or what it would do to Americans.
The ever-hopeful media finally realized their dream of an ending where John McCain rides heroically to America’s rescue on healthcare, and they dream of a similar ending on Russiagate, with the Arizona Senator saving the day, trusty lieutenant Lindsey Graham at his side. But McCain and Graham remain Party Men who at the end of the day, support Donald Trump, and evince deep skepticism on the dais when it comes to the question of collusion. They and their colleagues will likely do so until the bitter end.
A Democratic congressional victory next November, resulting in Democrats in the speaker’s chair and heading the relevant investigative committees, and if possible, helming the Senate too and sidelining the serpentine Mr. McConnell, is the only hope of fully investigating this president and his team for potential collaboration with a hostile foreign power, and impeaching him if it is warranted.
That’s a lot to lay on a party that until now has proved unequal to the challenge of the Trump era, and unprepared for the post-Reconstruction style backlash over the Obama era. The party that thought the parade of social progress would never end, for black people and DACA recipients, and gay couples and trans people has seen a Mack truck driven through the band line. And the backlash isn’t finished. Not by a longshot.
So what should Democrats do and say?
On the “doing” front, Democrats must recognize the unprecedented nature of the threat to their voters next year. Voters who lean Democratic – meaning voters of color and single women – are likely to be subjected to a national onslaught of voter suppression the likes of which has not been seen since the 1950s. That means Democrats should aim to register as many voters as they can, starting now, and mount a national information campaign to get their already registered voters to check and double check their registrations.
Set your goal high: aim for a million or more new registrants. And spend the money it takes to reach out to them and convince them of the urgency of the cause, and the relevance to their own wallets, given the bottom that could fall out of their own lives if they lose their healthcare. Put an army of lawyers on speed dial, because you’re going to need every one of them fight a party that has proven it will do anything, including widespread disenfranchisement and even shrugging off Russian collusion in order to hang on to power. By the way, expect that the Russians will be back. They interfered with Democratic candidates down ticket from Hillary Clinton last year too.
Meanwhile, it’s time for the party to do a little casting. Choose your most charismatic voices, preferably some who haven’t worn out their welcome in cable TV green rooms, but also some tried and true All Stars. Kamala Harris, Joe Kennedy, Al Franken, Eric Swalwell, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar come to mind, as do state-level stars like Mitch Landrieu, Stacey Abrams and Gavin Newsom. Get your congressional and gubernatorial candidates out there too, not just on TV, but in every blue and purple state and every major urban center.
As to what they should say, the message seems pretty simple: it’s time to cancel this dangerous and embarrassing White House reality show and get back to rebuilding America and the American dream.
Rebuilding America requires a few fundamentals. Luckily, one of them is not that red states and blue states fall in love with each other. That dream is just not on the table right now. There’s too much enmity. Too much water under the bridge. Obama’s election and reelection broke something in the body politic. Maybe one day it will get repaired, but it won’t by the next election. Everyone wants their particular views affirmed and for their opponents to be obliterated. If either the red or the blue states were to propose secession today, the other side would likely say “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
But given the urgency of the moment, our disunity doesn’t really matter as much now.
America is like a house full of squabbling relatives. We don’t have to like each other, but we damned sure better fix the roof before it starts raining.
And our roof is leaking where it counts: in the functioning of our democracy. Right now, the Congress is barely operating. The White House is an utter mess. The foundation is crumbling in terms of our physical infrastructure, in the GOP threats to take healthcare from our moms, dads, grandparents and children, in the continuing thirst for jobs where they are scarce, and in the waning confidence of our allies that we are a strong, reliable ally that is not being dictated to and toyed with by a foreign adversary and led by a sound, sane leader.
Democrats must take their victories where they can get them, but stay focused. They must succinctly and powerfully tell the country that if given control of Congress, they will do a small number of concrete things, and leave the great driving dream to 2020.
First and foremost: they will permanently safeguard Americans’ healthcare by protecting Medicaid, while fixing the very real problems in the individual insurance market, together with any Republicans who will join them, and in consultation with the states. Schumer and the Republican renegades took a decisive step in that direction last night.
Second: they will pass legislation, also crafted by working with governors, to invest in literally rebuilding America – our roads and bridges, highways, electrical grids and water and sewer systems; to finally give us a 21st century national transportation system and to ensure every household has access to the Internet, creating jobs and opportunity. If Republicans cry “tax hikes,” remind them of their push to steal a trillion dollars from Medicaid to hand over to the wealthy. That’s your money, too, America.
Third: Democrats will pass laws supporting business and scientific innovation to create jobs well into the future, including industries that promote clean air and water and make us independent of imported fossil fuels. We don’t need to lie to displaced workers by pretending the coalmines are coming back. America is the innovation nation. We raised entire industries from the dust and ashes of a world war and emerged to build the interstate highway system. We can do it again. We can out-build and out-innovate the world, and put our people back to work in the industries of the future. And we can use our extensive network of community colleges to retrain displaced workers so they can get in on the tech rush, too.
Fourth: Democrats will cancel the clownish Trump reality show by forcing the White House to live under real oversight, ensuring Robert Mueller can do his job (if he still has one) and giving America a real and thorough investigation of Russia’s intrusion into our election. No party can make Donald Trump behave like a rational adult, but he can be boxed in by a Congress willing to assert itself.
And fifth: they will return the Congress to the American people, putting an end to secret committees who write legislation behind closed doors and conspire in the dark to steal health care from the sick and the elderly in the dead of night. With an open Congress that does its business in the daylight, we can begin to tackle the weighty issues in our culture: immigration, refugees, policing, drug legalization and drug addiction, and whether to move to truly universal, single payer healthcare.
Those are big debates worth having, but we can’t even begin to tackle them with the Congress and the White House in the state they’re in, and while the fundamentals of our democracy are being sawed off and hammered into dust.
The White House and the GOP want us wasting valuable time fighting over where people relieve themselves, whether to turf our thousands of serving soldiers, sailors and airmen on the whim of a man who five times refused his country’s call to service, or over whether millions of phantom voters denied Trump the popular vote he felt entitled to. They want the opposition fractured and fighting over a bygone primary that’s lost to history and over which targeted group among you to throw over the side to lighten the boat.
Tell America you know better, Democrats. Tell Americans it’s time to turn off the noise and get back to rebuilding this country; this weathered house, and to have a Congress that at least has the backbone to stand up and say “enough” to the three-ring circus at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.