Why Democrats Govern and Republicans Obstruct

The best way to promote a liberal agenda is to build trust in good government.

Unlike the Republican response to efforts aimed at mitigating the effects of the Great Recession in 2009, Democrats aren’t attempting to obstruct everything Trump and Republicans propose as the country struggles to deal with a pandemic. That alone should be a stark reminder that both sides don’t do it when it comes to gridlock in Washington.

But as Ezra Klein notes, the differences between the two parties are even more stark than that. While Republicans sat on their hands and simply obstructed, Democrats are actually trying to govern.

Democrats are acting as the governing party even though they’re in the minority. They’re fighting for the baseline policies that any normal administration, Republican or Democrat, would be begging for right now.

“From the very beginning, this administration made the decision that there was no legitimate role for the federal government to play in responding to this crisis,” says Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “It wasn’t an accident they didn’t request any money in the early days. They really believed, as they believe today, that this is a problem states and local governments should confront.”

The risk Democrats take is that voters tend to credit a president with any major legislation, especially during an election year. Given the magnitude of Trump’s failures during this crisis, that is less of a concern than it would be otherwise. But we’ve still seen him take credit for relief measures, when it was actually Democrats who did the heavy lifting during negotiations.

There are always those who think that Democrats should employ the same tactics Republicans have used to effectively obstruct any progress that could be credited to the opposition. But that ignores a fundamental difference between the two parties, as Senator Brian Schatz explained.

“It’s like the old saying that Republicans believe the government is incompetent and then get elected and prove it,” says Schatz. “They don’t want the federal government to work and we do. That’s what’s going on here, and I don’t have a quick, facile solution to it. If we engage in a zero-sum game, we’ll just accelerate the death spiral that is Grover Norquist and Mitch McConnell and the Koch brothers’ dream.”

Schatz is exactly right. If you had any doubts about the fact that Democratic obstruction would play right into the hands of Norquist, McConnell, and the Koch brothers, I would remind you of what Mike Lofgren—former Republican congressional staffer—wrote back in 2011.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

That is precisely why a mantra of mine has been that the best way to promote a liberal agenda is to build public trust in good government.

Those differences are especially stark when, for the president and his supporters, “the cruelty is the point.” As Representative Pramila Jayapal told Klein about our current crisis, “There is enormous suffering, and if we do not respond with the boldness and the scale that this crisis demands, then that suffering will continue.”

There are probably times when promoting good government becomes a liability for Democrats who are attempting to negotiate with a party that is, as Lofgren suggested, “programmatically against government.” But ignoring the suffering of the American people, especially during a crisis like the one we’re facing now, is simply not an option.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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