If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last election cycle, it’s that the Democrats love pointing guns at their feet and letting other people pull the trigger. The Russians, James Comey—and basically anyone else that wanted to take a shot—all got in there and exploited the weaknesses in the party. Trump did it best of all—not by being a great candidate, but simply pointing out what a weak candidate Hillary Clinton was. And now that he’s going to be President of the United States, it’s his government, his appointees, and his policies that will guide this country for the next four years…at least. And as his controversial nominees for major offices pass through congress and the confirmation hearings, it will be the Democrats to blame—only this time, it’s a blast from the past.
In 2009, when Obama first took office, his party had a solid majority. The Democrats held onto many of their seats, riding on the coattails of one of the highest voter turnouts ever in our democracy, and even gained some seats. But Al Franken was in a bitter contest for Senator, and wouldn’t get confirmed as the winner of his state, Minnesota, until six months after everyone else was sworn in. This wouldn’t have mattered all that much, except for the supermajority that was needed to confirm any appointees. From January to July, Democrats didn’t hold an official supermajority—60 votes. And then, the bulwark from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, died, leaving another seat to be filled. All told, Obama’s majority was never enough to pass much legislation or confirm appointees without a fight.
From this high point in representation, Democrat’s numbers dwindled, down from 58 Democrats and two Independents to 53 and two. If they wanted to get anything done, anything at all, they would have to cull some Republican support. There are many reasons why this was always going to fail, namely that Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate, vowed to stymie his opponents at every turn. The obstruction in government was never higher than during these years, and work crawled to a standstill. The Democrats, in order to work around this, did something that at the time seemed debonair and provocative, but in 2016 is proving to be one of the stupidest things they’ve ever done.
Harry Reid called it the “nuclear option,” because images of mushroom clouds are what should have been dancing through his mind. In what the NYT called the “most fundamental alteration of [The Senate’s] rules in a generation,” Reid and the rest of the left-leaning members of congress approved a measure calling for a simple majority—51 votes—instead of the previously required supermajority on executive and judicial branch nominees. What this meant at the time was that Democrats could sail Obama’s nominees through Congress without the dreaded filibustering that had become a lurching figure in government during the first tenure. What this means now is that the Democrats had the terrible lack of foresight to never consider what would happen when the situation was reversed.
Mitch McConnell’s thoughts on the measure can be boiled down to a single quote: “you’ll regret this.” The Republicans succeeded in taking back the House and the Senate, and, even more regrettably, the presidency under Donald Trump. What the Democrats did was tear down the roadblocks—not just for Obama, but Trump also. Does he want a racist to be Attorney General? Done. Does this person have no qualifications for their position? No problem. Can a person who regularly abused the financial system be trusted in controlling and regulating markets? Why not?
It’s hard to argue that as the confirmation hearings continue—ethics committees and FBI background checks be damned—these appointments would not have suffered the same filibuster threats that were imposed upon Obama. Considering how disastrous “Attorney General Jeff Sessions” sounds in theory, there have already been unprecedented moves by Senators Cory Booker and John Lewis, both of whom testified against his confirmation. If the Democrats didn’t go “nuclear,” they could have filibustered him until they were blue in the face. As it stands, it looks as if most of his nominees will be confirmed no matter how they rage and mutter. The Republicans weren’t afraid to block Supreme Court nominations, or to shut down the government completely—why were the Democrats so desperate to confirm nominees that they would go and blow up the whole system?
In the end, it was to give the appearance of getting something done. The Republicans would be the obstructionist party, and the Democrats would be the party that actually worked. But the American people have proven in three elections that they would reward the obstructionist, because in the 21st century, that’s what fighting looks like: A standoff, hand on the trigger. And it’s not hard to see why conservative Americans so happily voted for even a noxious fiend like Trump; if he was willing to fight his own party, imagine what he was going to do to the other guys! Meanwhile, the Democrats don’t even look like they’re willing to fight—their guns are still holstered—pointed, as always, at the feet.
Chris Gilson is not dead, he writes about music for Pancakes & Whiskey, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Paste, Splitsider, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter.