Democrats don’t need any more presidential candidates. They need senators.
At least on paper, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) looks like a powerful contender for the presidency. He has a quarter-century of experience in Congress. He brings a left populist appeal without the baggage of being a self-described “socialist.” And he’s a winner. Brown won reelection by nearly seven points last November, despite Ohio’s Trumpian tilt and despite the fact that Republicans swept the state’s other major statewide offices.
Nevertheless, Brown announced on Thursday that he will not run for president.
This is the best outcome for the Democratic Party, and the best outcome for anyone hoping that America will someday have something resembling self-governance. If Brown were elected president in 2020, Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine would appoint his replacement. Democrats’ long odds of gaining a majority in the malapportioned Senate would shrink even further.
Other Democrats, such as Texas’ Beto O’Rourke or Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, would do well to follow Brown’s example and run for Senate and not the presidency. If Democrats win the presidency, but lose the Senate in 2020, Republican partisans like Mitch McConnell, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh are likely to sabotage the next president’s entire term — and then force that president to run for reelection with no accomplishments whatsoever.
The Senate timebomb
Democrats face such long odds in the Senate because Congress’ upper house is rigged. Every state receives two senators regardless of population. Because Democratic voters tend to reside clustered in population centers, Republicans enjoy a baked-in advantage in the race for Senate control. Each resident of the least populous state, Wyoming, effectively enjoys 68 times as much representation as a resident of the most populous state, California.
And Senate malapportionment is only going to get worse. By 2040, according to a University of Virginia analysis of Census Bureau projections, just under half of the country will live in only eight states. So half of Americans will be represented by 16 senators, while the other half will receive 84 senators. Meanwhile, nearly 70 percent of the country will live in only 16 states.
That means that, if America’s political coalitions continue to sort into Democratic population centers and Republican small towns and rural areas, Republicans will soon enjoy a permanent Senate supermajority that is large enough to remove the president of the United States via impeachment.
Without the ability to gain a Senate majority, moreover, Democrats can kiss the Supreme Court goodbye forever. As L’Affaire Garland demonstrates, Republicans will never allow a Democrat to be confirmed to the Supreme Court — at least if that Democrat will flip partisan control of the high court. And the Supreme Court’s current Republican majority looks eager to strip future Democratic administrations of their ability to make policy through agency regulations.
In a world with permanent Republican control of the Senate, in other words, Democratic presidents become irrelevant. They will be unable to legislate and unable to use the executive branch’s powers to regulate. Instead, they will merely bide their time until the voters grow sick of their anemic performance in office and replace them with a Republican.
Should Democrats gain control of the White House and both houses of Congress in 2020, they could potentially save the nation from permanent Republican rule by admitting additional states into the Union — one option would be to chop California into many different states, then bind the many Californias together under one state government via an interstate compact.
But with each passing election, America moves closer and closer to the tipping point where Republicans gain permanent control of the Senate and the United States ceases to have any meaningful form of democracy.
Meanwhile, in the short term, the winner of the 2020 presidential race will need to deal with Majority Leader McConnell if Republicans retain their grip on the Senate.
To understand McConnell’s approach to governing, it’s helpful to first examine how he behaved in the minority. A common metric used to gauge how often the minority party seeks to obstruct matters favored by the majority is to count the number of “cloture motions” filed during a particular Congress. Cloture is the process used to break a filibuster, so it will be invoked more often when the minority party engages in obstructionist tactics. When Mitch McConnell became minority leader, the number of cloture motions doubled.
If anything, the chart on the left underplays the significance of McConnell’s tactics. Between 1917, when the cloture process developed, and November of 2013, when Democrats changed the Senate’s rules to prevent McConnell from filibustering President Obama’s nominations into oblivion, nearly 3 in 10 of all cloture motions filed by any senator were filed during McConnell’s tenure as Minority Leader.
McConnell was not shy about his motivations. “The single most important thing we want to achieve,” the Republican leader said in 2010, “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
And McConnell had a plan to achieve this goal, even when it seemed impossible. “We have a new president with an approval rating in the 70 percent area,” McConnell told his fellow Republican senators during a retreat shortly after Obama took office, according to Alec MacGillis’ political biography of McConnell, The Cynic. “We do not take him on frontally. We find issues where we can win, and we begin to take him down, one issue at a time.”
The game was to “create an inventory of losses,” until Obama “has been damaged to the point where we can take him on.”
The key to this strategy was to deprive Obama of bipartisan accomplishments. “It was absolutely critical that everybody [in the Republican caucus] be together,” McConnell told the New York Times regarding his plan to oppose the Affordable Care Act, “because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is OK, they must have figured it out.”
“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell later told The Atlantic regarding his approach to Democratic legislation. “Because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”
McConnell is so committed to this strategy of denying bipartisan cooperation to Democrats that he was even willing to endanger the nation’s national security over it. In September of 2016, the intelligence community concluded that Russia intervened in the 2016 election specifically to help Donald Trump become president. In response, the White House briefed congressional leaders on this conclusion and asked them to join together in a bipartisan repudiation of Russia’s tactics.
McConnell blew up this deal.
According to the Washington Post, “McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”
Donald Trump would go on to narrowly win the presidency, and McConnell succeeded in filling a Supreme Court seat that he kept open for a year with the archconservative Republican Neil Gorsuch. The senator later described his decision to hold a Supreme Court seat open until a Republican could fill it as the most “consequential decision I’ve made in my entire public career.”
If a Democrat wins the White House in 2020, but Republicans retain the Senate, McConnell could be even more aggressive. He could refuse to confirm any judicial nominee named by the new president. Or even refuse to confirm any of the new president’s executive branch officials. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in NLRB v. Noel Canning, moreover, McConnell could also prevent the president from naming recess appointees to fill Cabinet jobs.
The next president would preside over a hollow government lacking essential personnel that, by law, must be installed before Cabinet departments can perform basic functions.
Similarly, the next Democratic president could forget about passing any meaningful legislation in a world where McConnell runs the Senate. Indeed, the Republican Senate could refuse to fund the government, or insist on only passing austerity budgets that would tank the economy and potentially force the president to seek reelection in a recession.
So Sherrod Brown made the right call. No matter how strong of a presidential candidate he might have been, he would be a failed president if he had to govern with McConnell still in charge.
Graphic by Adam Peck