Democrats Are Scared to Use Their Best Leverage

They need to start holding hostage the things that Republicans hold dear

Hamilton Nolan

Jim Watson/ AFG via Getty Images

A quarter of a million Americans are now dead due to the incompetence at the head of the Republican Party and the moral cowardice that caused the party to support that incompetence at all levels. Tens of millions more Americans are suffering from the economic fallout of our failure to control the pandemic. Republicans in Congress have refused to pass a minimally adequate relief package, and 12 million Americans could see their benefits run out by the end of the year, leaving them destitute. The Republican Party has spent its time during this health crisis trying to legally invalidate the health care law that provides coverage to nearly 30 million of their constituents. 

Widespread death and material ruin are what the GOP has already delivered in 2020. We are long past the point of having debates over whether to play hardball” with them.

Fortunately for those who enjoy the process of watching our nation’s decline play out as a sort of apocalyptic reality show, the Democratic Party has done little to demonstrate that it is up to the task of stopping any of this. It’s not just the failure to get even a modest relief bill passed, or the Democrats’ uninspiring results in the most recent Congressional elections. It is their years-long pattern of being outmaneuvered by Mitch McConnell and company, who are willing to destroy any institution and cause any amount of suffering among the lower classes in order to win. Republicans have seized control of the courts, engaged in systematic voter suppression and created large-scale propaganda networks to stay in power, as Democrats wave around the rule book and wonder why no referee has stepped in to tell everyone that they are, in fact, right. 

In (modest) defense of the Democrats, it is not easy to negotiate against someone who does not care about breaking any number of rules and causing any amount of human misery in pursuit of victory. It’s like one army trying to meet under a white flag to designate a battlefield, while the opposing army takes the opportunity to burn the cities. It creates a fundamental power imbalance. As anyone who has wrestled with such a foe will tell you, there is a certain point at which you must accept the fact that you need to be ruthless in order to have any chance of stopping a ruthless opponent. Don’t bring boxing gloves to a machete fight. The Democrats have never been able to convince themselves of this basic truth, and so they — and we — continue to lose. 

No matter how brutal, all negotiations still adhere to a basic logic. In order to maintain balance, you must exercise power over something that the other side cares about. If the Left (very broadly speaking) cares about basic health and human safety — meaning funding for healthcare, education, housing, and other human needs to promote equality and take care of the less fortunate — and the Right does not care about any of that, and is willing to scrap it all in pursuit of their own goals, then the Left will always find itself forced to give Republicans what they want in order to simply guard the basics against destruction. Thus the Right can seize an ever greater degree of power as the Left tries to stop the social safety net from shrinking quite so fast. This dynamic has gotten us to where we are today: fucked. 

Appeals to fairness or norms or human decency do not work. Nor do appeals to the public at large, which is now so divided and entrenched that We want to take away your healthcare” is a position that the Republican Party holds openly and the base will enthusiastically back, despite the fact that it will kill many of them. Democrats in Congress need to stop waiting for the arc of the moral universe to bend towards justice, and start deciding what they can hold hostage that Republicans care about. 

I have an idea: the Defense budget. That is what the Democrats can hold hostage. That is the bargaining chip that they can use to extract some of their priorities from the Republicans. They should filibuster the Defense budget every single year as a tool to make Republicans negotiate for things that normal people need. There are only so many things that will make a morally bankrupt party lose its cool, and this is one of them. So do it. 

There is a conceptual problem among Democrats. They see cutting the Defense budget” as a progressive priority that is not shared by the party’s moderates, and therefore just one more issue to be haggled over internally. That is the wrong way to look at it. Instead, they should recognize that the Defense budget is one of the only Republican sacred cows that they can grab onto, and therefore, it is leverage. Don’t just give your opponent his priorities for free, get something in return for them. This is an insight that Mitch McConnell had long ago, but his Democratic counterparts apparently have not. A reasonable person might say, Not having tens of millions of Americans slide into desperate poverty or risk death due to inadequate protection from this deadly pandemic is a priority that we all share, regardless of party.” But a ruthless bastard would say, The lives of all of these Americans, most of whom are not donors to my political campaigns, is a perfect bargaining chip for me to use in order to achieve wholly unrelated things that I want.” 

Mitch McConnell is that ruthless bastard, and he keeps on winning. 

I don’t care whether or not you support the troops.” The Democrats owe us all the willingness to fight this battle on its own terms. The lack of a meaningful relief bill is an acute human crisis that Republicans do not care about one bit. The response must be as urgent as the crisis itself. No relief? No military. No healthcare? No military. No safe schools? No military. If your opponent does not care about the crisis at hand, create a crisis that they will care about. Any Democrats worried about the Republican attack ads that would result from such a strategy should ask themselves why 250,000 dead bodies this year has somehow not caused Republican voters to disappear. You need to do what you need to do. 

Of course, Democratic leaders have already negotiated against themselves on this issue in advance. But the fact is that if they keep doing the same thing, we will get the same results: dead poor people, and plenty of guns.

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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