Nothing Changes Until the “Grim Reaper” of the Senate Is Held Accountable

Joe Biden took a lot of heat for his comments about working with segregationists. It’s worth taking minute to recall exactly what he said and the point he was making.

I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me “boy.” He always called me “son.” Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew…Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree about much of anything. We got things done…But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy.

The reference to a segregationist calling another white man “son” instead of “boy” isn’t just incomprehensible, it is incredibly tone deaf. But other than that, Biden used the most offensive people he can remember to make a point which is beyond dispute. Civil rights warrior John Lewis agreed with Biden’s take on history.

Biden was articulating his theory of change based on his past experience. He correctly stated that these days, the Republicans view the opposition as enemies, something that wasn’t necessarily true during his younger days in Congress. He thinks that we can and should go back to those days. Michael Tomasky points to the problem with that.

[A]s long as the Democrats—presidential candidates, Senate candidates, House Democrats, whomever—run around acting like Mitch McConnell isn’t a huge impediment to progress in this country, in his way a bigger one than President Trump, and not calling him out as the one-man Berlin Wall of reaction that he is, they’re wasting everyone’s time.

McConnell knows this is his role, and right now, he’s enjoying it way too much, the way he’s taken to repeatedly calling himself the “Grim Reaper” of the Senate…

He, and Fox and all the Republicans, will say it’s the Democrats who are being extreme, and they’ll make it look to much of the country like it’s just your basic dysfunction again and it’s everyone’s fault.

No. It’s McConnell’s fault.

Tomasky’s solution is that the Democrats must make the public understand that “dysfunction is not some amorphous thing that’s just in the Capitol Building water supply.” Instead, they need to make it clear that the man who revels in calling himself the “Grim Reaper” is responsible. I agree, and said basically the same thing two years ago.

But Tomasky fails to identify the challenge Democrats will face with that task. He is right to point out that right-wing media will completely distort the message, if they cover it at all. But in addition, the mainstream media, in the interest of balance, will respond by suggesting that Democrats have gone negative and furrow their brows with the fact that both sides do it. That is how they’ve been covering McConnell’s total obstruction strategy since it began in 2009. For them, Barack Obama never did enough to reach out to Republicans, even as some liberals claimed that he was giving away the store. No one ever stood up and held McConnell accountable.

The Republican majority leader has been getting away with being the Grim Reaper since the country was in the midst of the Great Recession and he refused to work with Democrats to do anything about it. The fact of the matter is that it has worked so well that Republicans will continue the strategy—at least until it doesn’t work anymore.

While Biden was right in his description of the problem, his theory that it will all change once Trump is defeated is nothing more than a recipe for more of the same. Given current conditions, the only way Democrats will be able to accomplish anything is to not only hold on to their majority in the House and win the presidency, but gain a supermajority of 60 seats in the Senate, which isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

What all of this means is that, as presidential candidates lay out their ambitious agenda items, the question lurking behind it all is “how will any of it get done?” A few of them have signed on to getting rid of the filibuster if Democrats gain at least a simple majority in the Senate. But there is a reason why that is referred to as the “nuclear option.”

The “nuclear option” is a last-resort, break-in-case-of-emergency way for the majority party in the Senate to overcome obstruction by the minority…

The change to a simple majority vote may not sound very dramatic, but in a place like the Senate, which operates on tradition and bipartisan comity, it’s a big deal befitting its apocalyptic name.

The truth is that in the Senate, “tradition and bipartisan comity” are gone. They were killed by the “Grim Reaper.” Right now, it doesn’t look like they’re coming back. The question is whether triggering the nuclear option across the board in the Senate will fix that, or simply make things worse. All one has to do in order to contemplate the latter is to look at how McConnell is using the 51-vote threshold to confirm a slate of Trump’s judicial nominees who aren’t simply conservative, but unqualified and extremist.

Rather than react to McConnell’s killing of Senate norms by killing one more—the filibuster—it seems to me that whatever strategy Democrats embrace must be focused like a laser beam on holding the majority leader and his Republican colleagues accountable for what they’ve done. That’s why I agree with Tomasky. But it means that the obstacle that must be overcome is the mainstream media’s obsession with balance, which Ornstein and Mann rightly called a distortion. Holding the “Grim Reaper” accountable for how he has broken the Senate isn’t a matter of partisanship, it is simply an acknowledgement of the facts.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.