What Democrats Don't Get About the Republican Party

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell holds a news conference at the Capitol. 

In 2018, Florida voters did something revolutionary, passing an amendment to the state constitution to restore voting rights to people with felony records who had served their time. By an overwhelming 65-35 margin, the electorate decided to get rid of this vestige of Jim Crow, one of many laws passed to keep African Americans from the ballot box. 

One might have thought that was the end of the story, but it most certainly was not. And that’s the story I want to focus on: One in which every advance Democrats make is met by unceasing attempts to undermine it, undo it, reverse it, destroy it. Those attempts are a key strategy employed by today’s Republican Party, something their opponents may not fully understand.

When that Florida initiative passed, Republicans did not say, “Oh well, looks like our ongoing attempt to restrict voting rights suffered a setback. We’ll just have to persuade the voters that our vision is the best one.” Instead, they immediately began working on ways to undercut the amendment. 

And last week, they succeeded. Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature saying that in order to have their voting rights restored, an ex-felon must have fully paid all court-ordered fines and fees—which can often be exorbitant and difficult for people with low incomes to pay. In other words, a poll tax. 

We see this over and over: Every apparent Democratic victory is met not with resignation by the GOP, but by an immediate redoubling of efforts to mitigate and reverse it. For Republicans, it’s never over. 

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, they filed lawsuits to get it struck down, and partially succeeded when the Supreme Court declared that the expansion of Medicaid must be voluntary. The result was millions of poor people in Republican states left without health insurance. When a Democrat wins an election in a state with a Republican legislature, they immediately move to restrict his powers, as they did in North Carolina and Wisconsin.   

And of course, when a Democrat like Barack Obama becomes president, they devise a hundred ways to hamstring his presidency, culminating in refusing to allow him to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat. 

And what do Democrats do? They haven’t exactly been passive during the reign of Donald Trump—there have been lawsuits over things like the travel ban and rescinding DACA, and attempts at conducting oversight. But Trump has been met with nothing like the fury Obama was when it comes to the opposition party’s actions.

Consider, for instance, the effort to obtain Trump’s tax returns, which pretty much everyone, Republican and Democrat, agrees would almost certainly reveal either scandalous doings or outright criminality were the public ever to see them. After taking his sweet time making the demand in line with the law that gives him that power, House Ways and Means Committee chair Richard Neal finally got around to it April under mounting pressure from the rank and file of his party. Then the administration essentially told him to buzz off, under the theory that the law does not apply to Donald Trump. 

The logical next step is to sue to force the IRS to comply with the law and produce Trump’s returns. Legally, it’s not even a close call; the law says that the committee’s chair can request anyone’s returns, and it doesn’t say he has to have a good reason, or any reason at all. It’s a power that belongs to him. Neal should have had his suit prepared—since it was obvious what was going to happen—and filed it the very day Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that he was refusing to comply with the committee’s demand. 

Yet Neal did not do that. That was almost two months ago. There has been no lawsuit. Apparently Neal can’t be bothered.

Now let me get you really depressed. There is a strong chance, likely better than even, that if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020 she will take office with a Senate still controlled by Mitch McConnell and the Republicans. Apart from the occasional bill to keep the government open or to address some issue about which there is no particular controversy, McConnell will allow no significant legislation to pass. No ambitious health care reform, no universal child care, no climate change initiative, nothing.

Not only that, he will go even farther than he did under Barack Obama to stifle the rest of the president’s agenda. Republicans will refuse to confirm any cabinet member who has any kind of liberal bona fides. They will slow the filling of judicial vacancies to a crawl, or they may simply refuse to confirm any judges at all. That, of course, goes for the Supreme Court too. Should any vacancies occur, McConnell will announce that he has discovered some new “rule” embedded in a remark some Democrat made decades ago which demands that as long as the presidency and the Senate are held by different parties, no Supreme Court seat shall be filled. After all, they got along with eight members while McConnell waited for Trump to be elected, and they’ll do just fine with eight again. Or seven. Or six. 

Meanwhile, that same Supreme Court—having already repealed Roe v. Wade and made it impossible for unions to organize—will be steadily striking down one action after another taken by that Democratic president, as it goes about dismantling the administrative state and whittling the president’s power down to a shadow of what it is, on the longstanding Republican judicial principle that the rules change completely when there’s a Democrat in the White House. 

If your response to this picture is to say, “C’mon, they wouldn’t go that far,” I’d be curious to know what life is like in the alternate universe you’ve been inhabiting for the last 20 years.

The reality for Democrats is that Republicans are never defeated. You can’t beat them in an election or a legislative battle and think your work is done. You have to beat them, beat them again, and keep beating them, because they will never stop fighting.

The worst thing any Democrat can do is to fail to realize that this is the nature of their opponent. Anyone who does will very quickly live to regret it.

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