Washington's Groundhog Day
"What if there was no tomorrow? There wasn't one today."
Groundhog Day is still a little more than two weeks away, but in Washington the movie version of the holiday is already here.
This week, Democrats once again teed up sweeping changes to America’s voting system without the votes. They again threatened to nuke the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold in the U.S. Senate without their entire caucus on board. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema repeated the positions they’ve held since the beginning of President Joe Biden’s term. Sinema insisted there was no need for her to “restate her support for the 60-vote threshold” during a speech on the Senate floor where she did just that. (NEW!, the Cap Hill press corps begged you to believe. Nah, more like same as it ever was.)
Outside the marbled bubble of the Capitol dome, Donald Trump called Mitch McConnell a “loser” for the umpteenth time as he prepared to rally with a pack of election deniers in Arizona on Saturday. Vice President Kamala Harris fumbled another television interview meant to again refurbish her flagging image. And the elite punditocracy again floated two-time presidential loser Hillary Clinton as the answer to the Democratic Party’s winter malaise.
These storylines sound familiar?
Groundhog Day — the movie — is the story of a weatherman who discovers he’s trapped in the same day over and over, leading Bill Murray’s character to hopelessly ask:
“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”
As we approach the one-year mark of Biden’s term, American politics writ large feels like a giant re-run of assorted moments from the last year, with the main characters comfortably repeating their parts without offering anything new.
Being the party wielding total power in Washington, this is predominantly a big-D Democratic Party problem.
The fact that the party is staring at dismal public approval numbers at the top of a midterm election year is even quintessentially Groundhog-ian. They’re headed for some number of losses in November, just like every power-holding party has in the previous four midterms.
Yet given the vast political capital and intensity Democrats have placed behind their push to federalize voting rights, we should take them at face value: This can’t be driven by sheer politics, because great politics isn’t often losing politics and they’re losing right now.
“This is not about a popularity contest or where issues rank. If in my judgement the very existential question is if democracy is at stake, I really have no choice but to stand and fight for it. And I really do believe that,” Michigan Democratic Rep. Andy Levine told me on Friday when I asked them if Democrats were obsessing over the wrong issue.
They’re relentlessly returning to the issue because they truly believe that without expanded access and freshly rooted voting protections, Republicans will finagle wins out of closely contested elections across the country where they’re rewriting the rules.
The more acute problem is that Democrats look like a dog chasing their own tale in circles. There’s no path out of their perpetual Groundhog Day, and they’re starting to admit it.
An exasperated president on Thursday confessed:
“The honest to God answer is, I don’t know how we can get this done.”
He isn’t the only one openly casting doubt.
Ezra Klein, the New York Times columnist and the brain of the establishment intellectual left, said on his podcast:
“I don’t see a path for the H.R 1 variants, including the Manchin approved one.”
With Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promising yet another vote come Tuesday, I decided to ask what appears to be the most crucial question facing Democrats: Is there a Plan B …
… to get out of the rabbit errr…groundhog(!) hole?
Or as Murray’s character put it in the 1993 classic:
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
The Democrats I spoke with want to play hardball.
Tom Nelson is a Democratic county executive in Wisconsin running for U.S. Senate who thinks Schumer and other committee leaders should start holding hostage money for Arizona and West Virginia, to apply maximum pressure to Sinema and Manchin.
“Why don’t we start pulling every single earmarked project out of West Virginia and Arizona?,” Nelson said, describing the Senate duo as “drunk on power” and “narcissists of the worst order.”
“We’ve been so accommodating to these two,” he said. “That’s not working. Doing the same thing again and again is the definition of insanity. Switch gears. Start putting the screws to the thumbs.”
Levin, the Michigan congressman, suggested another toilsome tactic: Making the filibuster real again by forcing the minority party to spend hours of time on the Senate floor debating the bill in order to block it.
Instead of, "sending an email and it kills legislation and nobody every says a word,” Levin wants to, “Let the drama play out in front of the American people.”
His football comparison was too imaginative to not include:
“Every Sunday … there’s a spread. What’s happening now is we literally never play the game. We say “Oh, the spread, it’s Green Bay by 14. Green Bay wins.’ That’s it. We just speculate. Let’s play the game.”
“They never play at all. They never suit up,” he says of the Senate, even as he admits, “I’m not saying I know it will succeed.“
Morgan Harper, a Democratic Senate candidate in Ohio, said if anything her party should have coalesced around an aggressive push for voting rights even sooner.
“There’s a lot of frustration among Democrats who feel like we haven’t been moving quickly enough or with urgency enough in Washington,” Harper told me this week, explaining that one of the most common inquiries she receives from voters is how she’s going to be a “different kind of Democrat.”
“People don’t think that Congress can do anything, that the president can do anything. We are losing people that don’t believe Democrats can do anything. They’re not voting, they’re not going to vote,” she said.
It’s an ironic alarm bell that’s ringing around Democrats across the country: A failure to deliver on democratic reforms will lead to a lack of enthusiasm for participating in the democratic process altogether.
Over and over this week the most ardent progressive activists declared that failure wasn’t an option when it comes to this democratic scenario.
The truth is, in American politics, failure is not only an option, it’s the most likely scenario.
Since Punxsutawney Phil first began prognosticating the weather back on Groundhog Day back in 1887, he’s only predicted an early end to winter 18 times, according to the Farmers’ Almanac.
For Democrats, only six more weeks of winter would be a blessing.
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