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.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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