There is a basic imbalance in America’s political life. Democrats have the edge, nationwide, in terms of voter affiliation, but Republicans play the game harder. Way, way harder.
As time goes on, it becomes clear that the Party of Trump isn’t playing the same game at all. There is, in effect, a self-imposed double standard in American political life, because Republicans routinely resort to tactics and strategies that Democrats just won’t stoop to.
For the most part, this problem is intractable. Should Chuck Schumer start refusing to perform his constitutionally specified duties to mirror McConnell’s refusal to allow Obama to nominate a Supreme Court justice? Would that make us feel good, and would it bode well for the nation? Probably not.
More basically, should Democrats start whole campaigns based on falsehoods? How about we start sending death threats to people for doing their jobs? Let’s make up absurd lies about prominent Republicans, lurid stuff involving sex and Satanism, and post them online under pseudonyms. That’ll go over big with our crowd, right?
No, no, and no. Democrats are not about to adopt any of these mainstays of the Republican playbook, and this is as it should be. The grade-school version of the principle is “Two wrongs don’t make a right;” the political-science version is that you don’t save a democracy by agreeing to abandon the rules by which democracy worked.
So, there’s a genuine bind. Unless those of us who would preserve our democracy are going to give ourselves permission to do things that are violent and/or illegal while saying things that are deceitful and/or crazy, the other side will have a huge tactical advantage. And if we did assign ourselves the task of acting that way, it wouldn’t end well and it wouldn’t be fun.
But let’s not make too much of this. It needn’t lead to an overall paralysis, and it better not. There are some situations in which the Democrats could do just what the Republicans are doing without violating any rules, where it’s really just a matter of having the nerve to do it and stick with it.
The matter at hand is the debt ceiling. Mitch McConnell wants to use the fact of the ceiling as a bargaining chip, or perhaps as a nuclear option, in his attempts to block the Biden agenda. He gave the Dems a two-month reprieve, but he’s not basically relenting. We are to understand that he will go to the mat on this; he will use his supposed willingness to blow up the global economy in order to thwart the Biden agenda.
The idea here would be that we default on our debt, the global economy tanks, and Mitch McConnell stands there explaining “This is all the Democrats’ fault! They had things they wanted to do, and they wouldn’t let me stop them by threatening that this would happen, so now it happened. So it’s their fault.”
McConnell does not ever want to be in that position. The whole gag is that he’ll get his way without ever actually risking it, because the Democrats will roll over. He assumes– correctly, as far as I can tell– that he can use the debt ceiling as a weapon. Why is it that only he gets to do that? Where’s the logic, the policy? The money at issue has already been spent; the question of the debt ceiling, if we want it to be a question, is whether the USA does or does not pay its financial obligations. Why should a question as dumb as that one favor one party over another?
As a mental exercise, visualize Democrats leading with their willingness to take down the global economy if the Republicans won’t do what they say. Hard to picture, isn’t it? But this is what it would be like if we simply decided to play the way they play.
A willingness (or a supposed willingness) to wreck the global economy should not be treated as a true advantage. McConnell isn’t some powerful sorcerer we must fear to cross. He’s a guy who threatens to do stuff that, if we felt like it, we could threaten to do. Like Trump, he’s a guy with no real beliefs who needs to be stood up to.
There is another aspect of Democratic paralysis, that really needs to be shaken off already. It operates pre-consciously, at this point, like this: A Democrat considers saying something true and relevant, or doing something right and necessary, but as they approach the idea they are overtaken by visions of what the Republicans will say. In a world where Joe Biden is a “radical socialist,” what will they make of your support for body cameras for our cops? Or any other good-government idea?
There is a basic logic error here: the premise is that if you’re careful, as a Democrat, maybe the Republicans won’t talk trash about you. Maybe you’ll be one of the Democrats about whom Republicans say nice, or at least neutral things.
Such as who? Name one! Hello, the Republicans will be talking all kinds of trash about you if you are a Democrat, period! There’s nothing you can do about it. They’ll compare you to Hitler; that’s what they do. If your main thing is trying to prevent them from saying stuff about you, you will not be in there doing the work. You’ll be hiding somewhere on the sidelines, hoping history doesn’t notice. It will.
Eric Kuhn lives in Middletown.