What are our national priorities?
Fiscal responsibility, apparently, is not one of them. Otherwise, Republicans in Congress would not use the debt ceiling – and the threat of default – as a bargaining chip. Or is it less a bargaining chip and more a device designed to stir up and divide Americans?
Allowing all eligible citizens an equal say in all elections is also not a priority. Otherwise, Republicans in Congress would be eagerly lining up their votes for federal oversight of states’ election laws. Or at the very least, their counterparts in state legislatures would not be advancing hundreds of bills that favor partisan control of elections.
Climate change is clearly not a priority. Otherwise, Republicans in Congress would not have doubted and denied climate change science for as long as they did. Nor would they be delaying action now that many have finally expressed their belief that, yes, climate change is happening and it is happening because of human behaviors.
Ensuring that all Americans can benefit from the great advances in healthcare is also clearly not a priority. Republicans in Congress have long opposed – without offering any alternative – the Affordable Care Act that, while not perfect, goes a long way to granting at least limited access to the kind of quality care that hard-working Americans are owed. True, Congressional Republicans did argue that the additional federal spending required to support the ACA was not fiscally responsible, but one has to question their sincerity after they cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations to the tune of an estimated $1.9 trillion in lost revenue over 10 years.
Under Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans have proven extremely effective at making sure that the Democrats do not succeed in supporting those priorities – regardless of how they affect the country or their own constituents.
Evidence shows that the public supports the goals that Republican lawmakers have opposed. An annual Gallup poll has repeatedly shown that 75-80% of Americans worry about federal spending and the budget deficit. Polls have repeatedly shown that most Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support voting rights bills proposed in Congress (the For the People Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act). 65-70% of Americans think the government should be doing more to fight climate change. And a majority of Americans, somewhere between 52% and 62% according to polls by Gallup and the Kaiser Family Foundation, respectively, support the Affordable Care Act.
As the GOP has shifted more and more to the extreme right, Republican leaders have lost sight of their conservative values. Rather than engage in serious policy discussions, they have become, simply, a party of power politics that responds to opponents’ proposals with declarations of “No, we won’t”. For the last 30 years, Republican leaders have avoided and shunned real debate about real issues, refusing to compromise and only telling us what they won’t do to solve our systemic problems, not what they can or will do to address them.
Today’s Republican leaders value partisan victory over the nation’s well-being. We need to constantly remember that lesson lest we suffer a failure of imagination and allow ourselves to believe that bipartisan legislation is still possible.
We also have to remember that the one problem that the GOP has prioritized for years is voter fraud – a problem that doesn’t exist to any significant degree – and the need for voter ID, a solution that already exists in a majority of states. That focus culminated in the recent claims of a stolen election. But the emphasis on voter ID as a necessary fix to a problem that doesn’t exist accomplishes several goals: it confuses voters, reduces their trust in elections, and distracts voter attention from more damaging changes to state election laws.
As for fiscal responsibility, it is conceivable that these Republican leaders remember their embarrassment in 2013 when they voted to raise the debt ceiling despite their initial promise to oppose it. This time around, with that lesson in mind and Senate Republicans in lock step with the party leadership’s partisan thinking, they may very well allow the country to default on its debt.
Democratic leaders should not rely too much on history for guidance. Circumstances today demand that they imagine scenarios in which the worst can happen. Republican leaders in Congress might actually allow the country to default under a Democratic president, and Republicans in state legislatures might use new voting rules to toss out the results of next year’s elections. Why else would they be putting such laws in place? Nothing but the norms of history tell us these things won’t happen. The two most recent Supreme Court nominations revealed how these Republican leaders feel about the norms of history: first, Republicans made up a new rule to guide when a nominee should receive a hearing and then they broke that rule when it favored them to do so.
Democratic leadership needs to set aside wistful expectations of civil debate toward compromise legislation and accept that their priority should be a demonstration to those who depend on the federal government that it can still deliver on the promise of American democracy. Democrats in Congress need to look past their differences and their labels for one another and remember that the role of the federal government is to maintain some equilibrium – some reasonable balance – between those with political and economic power and those without.
Democrats, as the party that at least talks about solving the systemic problems facing the country, must trust one another to find the common ground necessary for our democracy to work – whatever the risks at the polls to themselves and their party. This is a hallmark of true leadership.