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Trump Again Undermines Democratic Norms
President Trump’s refusal on Wednesday to commit to a peaceful transfer of power enraged Democrats. Here’s the latest.
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The Health 202: Congress could easily make the Obamacare lawsuit go away. It probably won't.
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What happens to the law in a world without Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, celebrating her 20th anniversary on the bench, posed for a portrait in Washington, DC, on August 30, 2013. | Nikki Kahn/Washington Post/Getty Images Sloppy, purely partisan arguments are likely to prevail. Barring a miracle or an asteroid strike, the Supreme Court is likely to have a 6-3 Republican majority very soon. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) has signaled he intends to back his party’s plan to swiftly confirm a yet-to-be-named replacement for Justice Ruth Bade Ginsburg — and it’s exceedingly unlikely that Democrats can block Trump’s nominee without Romney’s vote. So the small but significant check Chief Justice John Roberts previously placed on his Republican colleagues will likely soon be gone. Roberts, frequently the median vote on the current Supreme Court, is very conservative, but he is both less partisan and less aligned with movement conservatism than his fellow Republican justices. He sometimes rejects conservative legal arguments that are poorly reasoned or transparently partisan, or that ask him to move the law to the right faster than he is willing to go. With a sixth Republican on the Court, however, this limit on Republican power is likely to disappear. Trump spent the past three and a half years filling federal appellate courts with staunch conservatives, often with the guidance of conservative organizations such as the Federalist Society. That gives him a deep bench of potential Supreme Court nominees who are unlikely to disappoint the GOP in the future. The Court has already moved significantly to the right since it handed down some decisions protecting LGBTQ rights, limiting police surveillance, and preserving most of Obamacare, among many other things. If Trump fills Ginsburg’s seat, those decisions could be in grave danger. To be sure, there’s always some amount of unpredictability in the Supreme Court. Sometimes, a conservative justice is torn between competing ideological commitments, some of which lead them to form occasional alliances with their liberal colleagues. And it’s always possible that one or more conservative justices could be forced to leave the Court shortly after a Democratic president takes office. But realistically, unless Democrats trounce Republicans in the upcoming election and win enough congressional seats to pack the Supreme Court with additional justices, Republicans are likely to hold a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court for a long time. And with six votes, Republicans could afford to have one of those six cast an occasional, futile vote for a liberal outcome. Roberts is less tolerant than his fellow Republican justices of bad lawyering by conservatives It’s difficult to predict the full consequences of an additional Republican on the Supreme Court. Many of the differences between Roberts and his fellow Republican justices are less ideological than temperamental. Roberts shares most of the same policy goals as his Court’s right flank, but he is more likely to be turned off by bad lawyering, by transparently partisan arguments, or by calls to flout the Court’s ordinary procedures. In a Court led by Chief Justice Roberts, Republican lawyers who wanted the Supreme Court to implement Republican policies still had to wrap these requests in somewhat plausible-sounding legal arguments. It’s far from clear that these lawyers will face similar constraints in a 6-3 Republican Court. The Supreme Court completed its most recent term a little more than a week ago, a term that featured several high-profile — if narrow — losses for conservative causes. Notably, Roberts broke with his fellow Republicans in two cases where conservative advocates presented unusually weak arguments to his Court. Roberts typically votes to limit abortion rights, and his recent opinion in June Medical Services v. Russospends several pages criticizing the Court’s decisions protecting those rights. Nevertheless, Roberts reluctantly voted with his four liberal colleagues to strike down a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — a credential that is very difficult for these doctors to obtain and that does little or nothing to improve health outcomes in abortion clinics. The reason for Roberts’s vote was simple: The Louisiana law at issue in June Medical was, in all relevant respects, identical to a Texas law the Supreme Court struck down four years earlier in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016). “I joined the dissent in Whole Woman’s Health and continue to believe that the case was wrongly decided,” Roberts wrote in his June Medical opinion. But he concluded that the principle of stare decisis — the doctrine that courts should generally be bound by their prior decisions — compelled him to strike down Louisiana’s law. A similar dynamic played out in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, where Roberts joined his four liberal colleagues in holding that the Trump administration didn’t complete the proper paperwork when it decided to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States. The striking thing about Regents is the utter pointlessness of the Trump administration’s decision to bring this case all the way to the Supreme Court. If the administration wanted to end DACA, it should have corrected its paperwork error instead of spending years unsuccessfully trying to convince the courts to excuse this error. In many cases, Roberts’s insistence on legal and procedural regularity will only delay conservative outcomes — Roberts, for example, is still overwhelmingly likely to dismantle the constitutional right to an abortion once abortion opponents bring him a better case. But his formalism also places significant constraints on the Court’s Republican majority, and on the Republican Party’s ability to set policy through litigation. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 1989: when, in writing for the majority of the Court, I adopt a general rule, and say, “This is the basis of our decision,” I not only constrain lower courts, I constrain myself as well. If the next case should have such different facts that my political or policy preferences regarding the outcome are quite the opposite, I will be unable to indulge those preferences; I have committed myself to the governing principle. Roberts appears somewhat committed to this same principle, that procedural rules and inconvenient precedents cannot simply be tossed aside because they stand in the way of a conservative outcome. The other four Republicans appear far less committed to this principle, given their willingness to cast aside principles like stare decisis in cases like June Medical. With six Republican justices, Roberts will no longer be the swing vote. So it is likely that a majority of the Supreme Court will ignore many of the constraints that, as Scalia wrote a generation ago, prevent judges from ruling by fiat. The fate of the 2020 election could be up to Trump’s new appointee Republicans owe their power to a constitutional system that increasingly allows them to govern even when the voters prefer Democrats. Americans have a president who received nearly 3 million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent in 2016. In the Senate, because of malapportionment, the Republican “majority” represents 15 million fewer people than the Democratic “minority.” Both of Trump’s justices were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by a bloc of senators who represent less than half of the nation. Trump’s new nominee is likely to become the third justice who owes their job to these anti-democratic pathologies in our constitutional system. That nominee is likely to join a Court that is already fairly hostile to voting rights. And one of their first tasks in their new job could be deciding an array of disputes related to the upcoming presidential election. Republicans have a $20 million war chest they plan to spend on lawyers seeking to shift this election in the GOP’s favor, and the Biden campaign has its own army of lawyers planning to fight back. Trump’s lawyers are already litigating a wide range of cases seeking to make it harder to vote, from an effort to shut down voting by mail in Nevada to a suit seeking to ban drop boxes for absentee ballots in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the post-election period is likely to feature a blizzard of lawsuits seeking to declare some ballots invalid, or to require states to count other ballots that otherwise would not be counted. And the specter of Bush v. Gore (2000), where five Republican justices halted a ballot recount in Florida and effectively threw the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, looms over all American elections. If the newly reconstituted Supreme Court intervenes in this election on Trump’s behalf, that intervention could take one of two forms. The election could end in a single, closely watched decision like Bush v. Gore. But the Court could just as easily throw the election to Trump by a series of decisions — a few ballots tossed out here; a higher standard for counting absentee ballots there — that have the aggregate effect of changing the result of the presidential election. America becomes even less democratic in a 6-3 Republican Court Setting aside the upcoming election, the fairness of future elections is likely to suffer — possibly severely — in a 6-3 Republican Court. Under Roberts’s leadership, the Supreme Court dismantled much of the Voting Rights Act. It’s neutered most of the nation’s campaign finance laws. And it’s permitted laws that serve no purpose other than voter suppression. But it can get worse. “There are already five conservative votes on the Supreme Court to dismantle campaign finance reforms,” according to Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University and an expert on money in politics. In this sense, Torres-Spelliscy told me, a third Trump justice would only provide a “superfluous sixth vote” for the Court’s decisions undermining these laws. But there is one area of campaign finance law where the current Supreme Court has stayed its hand: disclosure laws. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Court’s landmark decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that his Court should have also tossed out many laws requiring many donors to disclose their donations. At the time, Thomas was the only justice who took this position, but the Court has changed significantly in the decade since Citizens United was handed down. Justice Neil Gorsuch frequently provides a second vote for Thomas’s most radical opinions. Similarly, as an aide to then-President George W. Bush, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a 2002 email that there are “constitutional problems” with laws imposing limits on how much donors can give directly to candidates — one of the few campaign finance laws left untouched by decisions like Citizens United. That suggests Kavanaugh could join Thomas in striking down more campaign finance laws. And then there’s Justice Samuel Alito. Though Alito did not join Thomas’s opinion in Citizens United, he is arguably the most reliable Republican partisan on the Supreme Court. As Adam Feldman, a lawyer and political scientist who runs the website Empirical SCOTUS, told me, Alito “is the sole conservative justice on the Court not to join the liberals in a 5-4 decision” — meaning that he has never once cast the deciding vote for a liberal outcome. (The one plausible exception to this trend is Alito’s brief opinion in Gundy v. United States (2019). But, in Gundy, Alito endorsed a conservative deregulatory project that is rejected by all four of the Court’s liberals.) It is unlikely, in other words, that Alito would cast a liberal vote in a campaign finance case if four other justices already support a conservative outcome. A third Trump justice could also erect new barriers before the right to vote. Although the Roberts Court has already dismantled much of the Voting Rights Act, the primary law preventing racial voter discrimination, it has thus far left in place the law’s “results test,” which prohibits any law that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Thus, while the Act is much weaker than it was just a decade ago, it still retains some vibrancy. Many state laws that disenfranchise voters of color remain illegal. But Roberts is a longtime opponent of this safeguard against racism in elections. According to the voting rights journalist Ari Berman, Roberts was the Reagan Justice Department’s point person in a failed effort to scuttle the results test. As a young lawyer, Roberts “wrote upwards of 25 memos opposing” such a test, according to Berman. Roberts may have the votes right now to effectively dismantle what remains of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court has not heard a major Voting Rights Act case since the relatively moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy was replaced by the hardline conservative Kavanaugh, so we don’t know how far the current Court is willing to go in dismantling what remains of the Voting Rights Act. At the very least, however, every Republican added to the Supreme Court increases the likelihood that the remainder of the Voting Rights Act will fall. 20 million Americans could lose health coverage in the pandemic Chief Justice Roberts famously broke with his fellow Republicans in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), a decision upholding most of the Affordable Care Act. Three years later, in King v. Burwell (2015), Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy broke with their fellow Republicans again to reject a new attack on Obamacare. But Kennedy is no longer on the Court. Without Ginsburg, it’s far from clear that there are still five votes to preserve the landmark legislation that provides health coverage to approximately 20 million people. And, with a third Trump justice on the Court, Obamacare could fall quite rapidly. The Supreme Court plans to hear oral arguments in California v. Texas, the latest case seeking to repeal Obamacare by judicial decree, in the fall. The plaintiffs’ arguments in Texas are, frankly, outlandish. They rest on the assumption that, when Congress repealed a single provision of the Affordable Care Act in 2017, that requires the courts to dismantle the entire law. But the fact that these arguments are widely viewed as ridiculous — even by many conservative legal scholars — won’t necessarily deter most of the Supreme Court’s Republicans from voting to strike down Obamacare. On the eve of oral arguments in NFIB, the first Obamacare decision, the plaintiffs’ arguments in that case were also widely viewed as misguided. An American Bar Association poll of Supreme Court experts found that 85 percent believed the Affordable Care Act would be upheld, and another 9 percent believed the Court would dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. That didn’t prevent four justices from voting to repeal the entire law. And, with another Trump justice on the Supreme Court, that four could become five. LGBTQ Americans could be stripped of their constitutional rights The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which held that federal civil rights law prohibits workplace discrimination against LGBTQ workers, is probably safe. That decision was 6-3, with both Roberts and Gorsuch voting with the majority. But the Court’s constitutional decisions protecting LGBTQ rights stand on far more precarious ground. Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court’s landmark decision establishing that same-sex couples enjoy the same marriage rights as opposite-sex couples, was a 5-4 decision with Kennedy in the majority. Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which placed strict limits on the government’s ability to prohibit sexual activity between consenting adults, and Romer v. Evans (1996), which held that the government may not pass laws solely to express “animus” against gay people, were both 6-3 decisions with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Kennedy in the majority. O’Connor and Kennedy were replaced with hardline conservatives. It’s possible, in other words, that all three of these decisions could fall even if Trump’s nominee is not confirmed — although, for that to happen, a state would likely have to pass a law that violates Obergefell, Lawrence, or Romer to test whether the Supreme Court would strike that law down. With a third Trump justice, it is even less clear that the Court’s new majority will value stare decisis more than it values a conservative approach to LGBTQ rights. It’s also possible that the Court could leave decisions like Obergefell nominally in place, but allow states to deny many rights to LGBTQ Americans. The Court, according to Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, “might permit states to undermine Obergefell by treating married same-sex couples differently in some ways — for example, by permitting states to favor straight couples in adoption or family benefits or even in the definition of who is a legal parent.” Minter’s view was echoed by Josh Block, a lawyer with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project. While Block said he does not think a newly constituted Court “would vote to overrule Obergefell completely and allow states to ban marriage outright,” he fears the Court’s new majority “could allow states to treat those marriages differently.” Indeed, that’s more or less the approach that Gorsuch took in Pavan v. Smith (2017). Obergefell held that the Constitution protects same-sex couples’ right to marry “on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.” In Pavan, a majority of the Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law that treated married same-sex couples differently than married opposite-sex couples with respect to which names appear on a birth certificate. Gorsuch dissented, in an opinion joined by Thomas and Alito. His opinion suggested that states may be able to discriminate against same-sex couples so long as they argue that “rational reasons exist” for the discrimination. The EPA could become a hollow husk As a general rule, Congress may legislate in two different ways. The simplest way is to enact a law commanding certain individuals or businesses to behave in a certain way. Thus, for example, if Congress wishes to limit pollution, it can pass a law commanding power plants to install a particular device that reduces emissions. But Congress may also lay down a broad policy and instruct a federal agency to issue relatively easily updatable regulations implementing that policy. The Clean Air Act, for example, provides that certain power plants must use “the best system of emission reduction” that currently exists, while also taking into account factors such as cost. It also gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to issue binding regulations instructing energy companies on which systems they must use to limit emissions. That way, the regulations can adapt as technology evolves. Congress still sets the overarching policy — the impacted power plants must use the “best system of emission reduction” — but the EPA determines what that “best system” is at any given moment in time. In Gundy v. United States (2019), however, Gorsuch called for vague new limits on Congress’s power to delegate regulatory power to agencies. And, while Gorsuch’s opinion in Gundy was technically a dissent, all five members of the Supreme Court’s current Republican majority have since signaled they are supportive of Gorsuch’s approach. Existing precedents typically require courts to defer to Congress’s decision to delegate regulatory power to an agency. Gorsuch would replace these precedents with a new standard providing that a federal law permitting agencies to regulate must be “‘sufficiently definite and precise to enable Congress, the courts, and the public to ascertain’ whether Congress’s guidance has been followed.” Under Gorsuch’s approach, judges — and ultimately, Supreme Court justices — would get to decide which federal laws delegating power to an agency are “sufficiently definite and precise,” and which ones should be struck down. So it will matter a great deal who sits on the Supreme Court. In a post-Gundy world, courts will have far more power to make discretionary calls about which regulations they wish to uphold and which ones they wish to strike down. That means that a more conservative Court will tend to strike down more regulations favored by Democrats. Police could gain far more power to engage in surveillance The current Supreme Court is arguably more friendly to criminal defendants than it was 20 years ago. For many years, the Court was dominated by conservatives incubated in the “tough on crime” rhetoric preferred by presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The current Court, by contrast, is more likely to see criminal justice cases through a libertarian lens. A big reason for this libertarian turn is that individual conservative justices hold defendant-friendly views on certain criminal justice issues. Roberts often votes with his liberal colleagues in cases where police use new technology to conduct intrusive searches. Gorsuch wrote the lead opinion in a case holding that criminal defendants may only be convicted by a unanimous jury. Kavanaugh is a long-standing opponent of racial jury discrimination. While it’s important that justices like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh sometimes take a broad view of the rights of criminal defendants at trial, Roberts’s support for limits on police conduct is likely to prove more consequential — because the overwhelming majority of criminal suspects never receive a trial to determine their guilt. “97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases end in plea bargains, with defendants pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence,” according to a 2012 analysis by the New York Times. So Supreme Court decisions protecting trial rights only impact a small minority of defendants. The gap between Roberts and his fellow Republicans was most on display in Carpenter v. United States (2018), where Roberts voted with his four liberal colleagues and held that police “must generally obtain a warrant supported by probable cause” before obtaining cellphone records that can be used to track an individual’s movement. Carpenter was a significant case because, as Justice Kennedy wrote in dissent, the Court has typically held that “individuals have no Fourth Amendment interests in business records which are possessed, owned, and controlled by a third party.” But Roberts recognized that, as police gain more and more technologically sophisticated methods of tracking criminal suspects, the Constitution must recognize new limits on these methods. It’s one thing to say that police can track every number dialed on a particular phone, but it’s another thing altogether to say that police can turn each individual’s cellphone into a homing device that monitors their every move. If Roberts is no longer the swing vote, Carpenter could potentially fall. At the very least, the Court is likely to grow less skeptical of police overreach and less fearful of the awesome surveillance power given to police by new technology. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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How Mitch McConnell is changing the Democratic Party
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the US Capitol on March 18. | Win McNamee/Getty Images What Senate Democrats are learning from Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell was elected to the US Senate in 1985. He was named Senate minority leader in 2007, and Senate majority leader in 2015. It was, for McConnell, the culmination of decades of planning, labor, and, when necessary, self-abasement. “The ultimate goal of many of my colleagues was to one day sit at the desk in the Oval Office,” McConnell writes in his memoir, The Long Game. “That wasn’t my goal. When it came to what I most desired, and the place from which I thought I could make the greatest difference, I knew deep down it was the majority leader’s desk I hoped to occupy one day.” And oh, what a difference McConnell has made. He will go down as one of the most consequential Senate leaders in history. But his legacy isn’t defined by bills passed or pacts struck. McConnell’s legislative record, in terms of both his accomplishments and those he’s shepherded through as leader, is meager. He has passed tax cuts, cut regulations, and confirmed judges. He failed to repeal Obamacare, shrink or restructure entitlements, or pass infrastructure or immigration reform. Historians will not linger long over the laws McConnell passed. As McConnell himself has said, his most consequential decision was an act of negation: blocking Merrick Garland from being appointed to the Supreme Court. McConnell’s legacy, rather, will be in transforming the United States Senate into a different institution, reflecting a different era in American politics. Historically, the Senate has been an institution unto itself, built around norms of restraint and civility, run according to informal understandings and esoteric rituals, designed around the interests of individuals rather than the stratagems of parties. This is the Senate McConnell claimed to revere, naming Sen. Henry Clay — known as “the Great Compromiser” — as his model and promising a restoration of the old traditions. This is the Senate McConnell has eviscerated, through his own actions and those he has provoked in the Democrats. Despite his theatrical embrace of sobriquets like “Darth Vader” and “the Grim Reaper,” McConnell isn’t an evil genius. He is a vessel for the currents and forces of his time. What sets him apart is his fulsome embrace of those forces, his willingness to cut through the cant and pretense of American politics, to stand athwart polarization yelling, “Faster!” Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is seen after the Senate Republican policy luncheon on March 17. Under McConnell, the Senate has been run according to a simple principle: Parties should use as much power as they have to achieve the outcomes they desire. This would have been impossible in past eras, when parties were weaker and individual senators stronger, when political interests were more rooted in geography and media wasn’t yet nationalized. But it is possible now, and it is a dramatic transformation of the Senate as an institution, with reverberations McConnell cannot control and that his party may come to regret. Indeed, McConnell’s single most profound effect on the Senate may be what he convinces Democrats to do in response to his machinations. “What makes McConnell successful is he gets his party colleagues and the Democrats to buy into his vision of the Senate rather than trying to change it,” says James Wallner, a fellow at the R Street Institute and a former executive director of the Senate Steering Committee under Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Mike Lee (R-UT). I will confess to a deep pessimism about American politics right now. We stand on the precipice of a legitimacy crisis — minoritarian rule has become the norm, an unpopular president has all but promised to refuse to accept a loss at the polls, and a political system that has only ever worked with weak parties is proving unable to govern amid the collisions of strong ones. But there is a glimmer of an optimistic tale that can be told, too. And, to my surprise, it revolves around McConnell, and the vision of the Senate that he is convincing Democrats to embrace, the reforms he might, at last, convince them to make. What did Mitch McConnell do wrong? Rewind the clock to 2016. Justice Antonin Scalia has died. President Barack Obama has nominated Merrick Garland, a moderate Democrat whose confirmation would end conservative dominance over the Court, to replace him. Mitch McConnell commands a 54-vote Senate majority, lifted into office by conservative voters who loathe the idea of a liberal Supreme Court. McConnell does two things here, and they are worth separating. One is philosophical, and even principled. He decides to treat Supreme Court nominations as what they are: one of the most ideologically consequential votes the Senate takes. The other is cynical: He refuses to even hold a hearing on Garland, instead inventing an absurd rule, one that he will later break, that states that Supreme Court seats shouldn’t be filled in presidential election years. McConnell’s calculation was simple: If Garland was permitted to testify, some Senate Republicans might revert to treating the nominee on his merits and swing to support Garland. McConnell needed Republicans to act like a caucus, not individual senators. And so he froze the process on a vote that united his party rather than one that divided them. “It’s a question of power and only secondarily of explanation,” says Steven Smith, author of The Senate Syndrome: The Evolution of Procedural Warfare in the Modern US Senate. “But politicians need to talk, so they need explanations.” Liberals focus on the wanton hypocrisy of McConnell’s comments. “The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” he said at the time. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” But focusing on what McConnell said obscures the underlying logic of what he did: Republicans didn’t want Obama to fill Scalia’s seat, they had the power to stop him, and so they did. All the rest of it was just mouth noises. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images McConnell in 2016 tells reporters that support among Senate Republicans has not waned for his refusal to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland. This is the true McConnell rule: What parties have the power and authority to do, they should do. And to give him his due: It is much stranger, by the standards of most political systems, for the reverse to be the case, for senators to refuse to use their power to pursue their ideological ends on a question as important as a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. But that’s how American politics has traditionally worked. It worked that way because the parties, and their Supreme Court nominees, were different than they are now. The parties were ideologically mixed rather than ideologically polarized, and Supreme Court nominees were ideologically unpredictable rather than heavily vetted and ideologically consistent. From the 1950s through the 1990s, knowing the party that nominated a justice told you little about how that justice would vote. All of that lowered the stakes on each nomination. Today, we have ideologically disciplined coalitions naming their most reliable foot soldiers to lifetime appointments to the most powerful judicial body in the land. Those changes predate McConnell; his contribution was taking them to their logical conclusion in the Senate: Treat Supreme Court nominees like any other major ideological vote, and do whatever you need to do to win. “I am not sure that any majority leader in history has had less regard for the institution than Mitch McConnell” This attitude also drove McConnell’s record-breaking use of the filibuster during the Obama era. The Senate has long had a filibuster, and it was technically more powerful in the past than today. Until 1917, there was no procedure by which any number of senators could vote to end a filibuster. From 1917 to 1975, it took a two-thirds supermajority to close a filibuster. Even so, filibusters were rare in this period — with the gruesome exception of the Southern bloc of Dixiecrats who used them to block civil rights legislation. But as the Dixiecrats proved, it was relatively easy for a united group of senators to block any and all legislation, if they so chose. The rules gave them that power, and the minority party could’ve used it with abandon. The norms, and the diffuse nature of the parties themselves, kept them from routinely using it. What’s changed the US Senate isn’t changes to the rules, and it’s not just McConnell. It’s been the sorting of the parties into ideologically and demographically distinct coalitions. And it’s this trend that McConnell has, depending on how you look at it, harnessed for his ends or embraced because of his weaknesses. Either way, he has wrenched the Senate away from its traditional role as an institution unto itself, governed by norms of restraint and civility, and midwifed its transformation into another forum for party combat. He has created a parliamentary environment in an institution where the rules were designed for comity and cooperation. The result has been gridlock, fury, and confusion. “I am not sure that any majority leader in history has had less regard for the institution than Mitch McConnell,” says Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). “He claims he’s an institutionalist, but that’s a lie. Instead of having any shred of responsibility for the institution, he simply has done what he believes he can get away with and still win. And up until now, that’s been true. But I think the cost of that is going to turn out to be extraordinary.” What McConnell has wrought Over the past few months, I’ve been talking to Senate Democrats about the future of the filibuster. To my surprise, something had cracked in the ice. Moderate members who used to dismiss calls to abolish the filibuster were taking them seriously, predicting or even advocating its fall. And the reason they gave me was always the same: Mitch McConnell. The singular lesson Senate Democrats learned from the Obama years was McConnell simply wouldn’t let them govern if they retook the majority. The hope that their cross-aisle friendships, technocratic compromises, open committee processes, or informal “gangs” could break McConnell’s obstruction had dissolved. And with the world warming, and the virus raging, and millions unemployed, they knew that if they retook power, they would have to govern. “We’re not going to pass on a historic set of opportunities to allow garden-variety obstruction,” says Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). “We’re going to get this done.” I want to note, here, that both sides have their narratives of persecution and blame. Republicans believe Democrats broke norms, abused rules, corroded traditions. In 2013, for instance, Democrats nuked the filibuster on executive branch appointees and non-Supreme Court judicial nominations. They argue, I think correctly, that McConnell forced their hand, filibustering an unprecedented number of appointments and making it functionally impossible for Obama to govern. Republicans argue that Democrats changed the rules rather than naming more moderate choices to key positions and have reaped what they sowed. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images President Obama greets Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol in 2013 to discuss tax reform, spending cuts, gun control, and immigration. I think Democrats have the better of this argument, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the underlying dynamic that’s important. Smith calls it “Senate syndrome.” In a 2010 paper that is all the more useful for predating the past decade of escalation, he wrote, “In today’s Senate, each party assumes that the other party will fully exploit its procedural options — the majority party assumes that the minority party will obstruct legislation and the minority assumes that the majority will restrict its opportunities.” What Democrats now believe is McConnell won’t let them govern if they win, and in the aftermath of Garland and of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, he won’t show them any quarter if he wins. Republicans, to be fair, believe the same about Democrats. Compared to the Senates of yore, both sides are right. McConnell has gone further, faster, than the Democratic leaders in torching old precedents and making the realpolitik principles of the new era clear. But in doing, he’s potentially done something that liberal activists and pundits were never able to achieve: convince Senate Democrats that the Senate is broken, and that new rules are needed. In this, McConnell’s strengths are also his weaknesses. He possesses a brazenness about American politics, a cynicism about the use of power, that lets him execute stratagems other leaders would be constrained by their reputations or fear of backlash from attempting. But that same comfort with the dark side, that willingness to play the Grim Reaper of politics, robs his opponents of their excuses for inaction, of their comforting belief that comity and compromise waits around the corner. “It is a little bit frustrating when liberals complain, because McConnell is not doing anything wrong per se, he’s just using his power very aggressively in ways that are permitted by the rules,” says Adam Jentleson, a former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and author of the forthcoming book Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy. “You can complain about that all you want, or you can respond by doing the same thing when you have power. And Democrats are starting to realize they have a responsibility to the health of our democracy to pass the structural reforms that will make the Senate, and thus the government, more reflective of the country.” In the long run, McConnell may reshape the Senate more completely through what he compels Democrats do than through what he himself does. Could McConnellism lead to democratization? I began this piece by saying my optimistic vision for politics revolves around McConnell, and it’s time I made good on that argument. Before I do, let me state the obvious: Crisis is not always opportunity. Sometimes, it is just crisis. And America may simply fall into fracture or illegitimacy. If it is to avoid these fates, it will require actions that few politicians enjoy contemplating, and the safest bet is always that politicians will duck hard choices. What follows here, then, is not a prediction but a possibility. Representative democracy is a good system, provided it is both sufficiently representative and sufficiently democratic. America, in 2020, is neither. The Senate gives the Republican party a 6- to 7-point advantage. The Electoral College gives the Republican Party a 65 percent chance of winning elections in which it narrowly loses the popular vote. Because of these advantages, the Republican Party has managed to secure startling dominance of the Supreme Court, despite rarely winning a majority in national elections. And that same Supreme Court then delivers rulings that further help Republicans win elections; in fact, President Trump has said explicitly he is counting on the Court to help him challenge mail-in ballots. "We need 9 justices. You need that. With the unsolicited millions of ballots that they're sending ... you're gonna need 9 justices." -- Trump suggests he's counting on SCOTUS to have his back when he makes claims of election fraud following November's election— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 22, 2020 Democracy works because it disciplines politicians and parties: It forces them to hew closer to what the voters want, and punishes them when they diverge too far. But that disciplining function dissolves when the pathway to minoritarian rule strengthens. That’s broadly understood. What’s less understood is that it also dissolves when the mechanisms of governance weaken, when government begins routinely failing to deliver voters the change that has been promised. “It’s very difficult right now for Americans to see why it is that they go to the polls and — maybe — the people they vote for get elected, but then not much seems to change,” says Suzanne Mettler, co-author of Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. “They don’t follow the fact that, well, there weren’t 60 votes for cloture in order to bring something to the floor in the Senate.” The Senate sits at the center of both these currents of dysfunction, and its toxic role in American politics, and American life, has been protected by the thick shroud of mythos and tradition that surrounds it. It is why American citizens in DC and Puerto Rico remain disenfranchised. It is why reforms to make democracy more responsive, to protect it from the flood of cash and the perversions of gerrymandering and voter suppression, have no chance of passage. It is why, even on the occasions when one party holds both chambers of Congress and the White House, so little gets done. “One of the worst things about the filibuster is it allows senators to say they support something without ever having to stand behind a vote,” says Stasha Rhodes, director of the 51 for 51 campaign, which advocates for a DC statehood vote free from the filibuster. “It’s one thing to say you support DC statehood and another to say you support bypassing the filibuster to see it actually happens. It is one thing to talk about the need to reduce gun violence in America. It’s another to say you’re going to remove the hurdles that stand in that bill’s way. The difference between removing the filibuster and not is the difference between theory and action.” McConnell’s use of the filibuster, and his approach to Supreme Court nominations, is heightening the contradictions. Democrats are now considering reforms that are, from the standpoint of democratic governance, overdue, but that were, from the standpoint of Senate traditions and mores, unthinkable: eliminating the filibuster, adding DC and Puerto Rico as states, even changing the composition of the Supreme Court. To Republicans, these reforms would represent escalation. To Democrats, they would represent the only path forward. Perhaps both are right. Drew Angerer/Getty Images McConnell has been adamant that the Senate will vote this year on President Trump’s nomination to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The fundamental conflict in American politics is whether we will, going forward, be a true multiethnic democracy, or whether we will backslide into something closer to minoritarian rule. The crisis McConnell has forced can play out in many ways, some of them terribly destructive. But the certain path to backsliding is simple inaction, in which the status quo persists, minoritarian rule perpetuates itself, and the 20th-century understanding of the US Senate is used to choke off multiethnic democracy in the 21st century. “When I got to the Senate, people used to say, ‘If anyone can do it, Mitch can do it,’” recalls Wallner. “They stopped saying it after he failed a lot.” But in this case, it may be true: If anyone can get the Democrats to take the urgency of reinvigorating democracy seriously, Mitch can do it. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Retired astronaut Mark Kelly with his wife, former Congress member Gabrielle Giffords, in 2017. | Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images The same voters who helped Kyrsten Sinema win could boost Mark Kelly, too. The Senate race in Arizona is giving a lot of people déjà vu. Just two years after running — and narrowly losing — to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Sen. Martha McSally is running again, this time against retired astronaut Mark Kelly, in an attempt to keep her seat. In a unique twist, McSally was appointed to an open Senate seat by Gov. Doug Ducey to serve out the term of the late Sen. John McCain after she’d previously lost. And experts say McSally’s candidacy isn’t the only thing that feels familiar. “I would be willing to wager Sinema just handed Kelly her playbook and said, ‘Here you go, here’s how you win the US Senate in Arizona,’” quipped OH Predictive Insights pollster Mike Noble. Many of the dynamics that defined 2018 — and contributed to the state’s shift to the left — have only become more apparent in the two years since. Independent voters, which make up about a third of the state’s electorate, are still dissatisfied with President Donald Trump and likely to favor Democrats this fall. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden led Trump 57 percent to 38 percent among independent voters in the state. Democrats are also making inroads with moderate Republicans, particularly suburban women, who are interested in less polarized leadership and concerned about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. And the state’s growing population of Latinx voters is continuing to skew Democratic. Caitlin O’Hara/Getty Images Sen. Martha McSally speaks during a rally for President Trump in Phoenix, Arizona, on February 19. “The shift is these Ducey-Sinema voters. You’re a Republican and you’re willing to vote for a Democrat. That’s where I think the most growth has been,” said Lorna Romero, a former communications director for McCain’s 2016 campaign. There are some key differences this cycle that are poised to have major implications on the race, too. The state, like the rest of the country, is still grappling with the public health and economic consequences of a devastating pandemic, which hit Arizona particularly hard this past summer. Plus, the presidential election is poised to loom over any down-ballot races. Strong anti-Trump sentiment in the state, driven by his divisive rhetoric and poor handling of the pandemic, could ultimately amplify the same trends already evident in the last two cycles. Although Sen. Mitt Romney won Arizona by 9 points in the 2012 presidential race, Trump only took it by 3 in 2016. Sinema then won the state’s Senate seat by 2 points in 2018. Following her defeat that year, members of McSally’s team put out a memo that touched on the reasons behind her loss. In it, they summed up several issues — including her decision to align herself closely with the president — that could well lead to the same outcome again. “A significant segment of the AZ GOP was hostile to the President,” the memo read. “This segment of moderate Republicans, especially [women], proved very difficult to bring home to a Republican candidate that supported President Trump and the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh.” In addition to maintaining her steadfast backing for Trump, McSally is poised to take another potentially polarizing Supreme Court vote in the coming weeks, making some of the circumstances she’s dealing with very similar to 2018. Democrats are making gains with moderate Republicans in Arizona According to exit polling from the midterms, Sinema won 12 percent of Republicans as well as 50 percent of independents and an overwhelming majority of Democrats. That same coalition of voters could be the ones to buoy Kelly to victory this cycle. In the RealClearPolitics average, Kelly is ahead of McSally by more than 6 points. And an OH Predictive Insights poll published in mid-September found that 15 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents would support him. “Sinema voters — they are the Jeff Flake Republicans, they are the John McCain Republicans who want civility,” says Derrik Rochwalik, a political consultant based in Phoenix who was previously chair of the Maricopa County Young Republicans. Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images Sen. Kyrsten Sinema departs from the Senate floor after a vote on September 16. Trump’s hardline stances on immigration and racist comments about Mexican immigrants are among the factors that have turned these voters away. And McSally’s willingness to back Trump on issues including the national emergency for his border wall and the recent Supreme Court vacancy means many view her as just another extension of his administration. “I want a candidate that will represent my family and that will make decisions based on personal convictions and not just follow the President from their party,” said Mark Tucker, a resident of Gilbert, Arizona, in a recent statement that included a hundred Republicans backing Kelly. While McSally has made a more partisan appeal, experts in the state note Kelly’s messaging has been designed — much like Sinema’s — to reach a specific subset of crossover Republicans and independents. “When you look at his ads, he’s not talking about Democrat-this or Democrat-that. He’s running largely as somewhat of an independent,” says Joe Garcia, the executive director of the Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund. McSally herself nodded at Kelly’s approach in an August event, going so far as to suggest that some people may not be aware he is a Democrat. “Somebody actually could vote Trump-Kelly,” she warned. Carolyn Kaster/AP Mark Kelly takes the stage during the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Kelly’s policy positions, like his messaging, hew to the center: He’s supportive of a public option and reducing drug prices through Medicare negotiation, and he has called out the need to generate more clean energy jobs while stopping short of backing the Green New Deal. Much like many Democrats did in 2018, he’s made defending protections for people with preexisting conditions a centerpiece of his campaign. Kelly is also married to former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, and the two have been leading gun-control advocates in the wake of the 2011 shooting during which a gunman shot Giffords in the head at a constituents’ meeting in Tucson. Presently, he backs universal background checks and red-flag laws, which enable law enforcement to bar individuals from accessing firearms if they are flagged as a danger to themselves or others. “I’m running — to be an independent voice for Arizona,” Kelly has said. Kelly’s campaign declined to make him available to Vox for an interview. McSally’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Kelly’s focus on his independent streak echoes messaging Sinema once used about being able to work with “literally anyone” to get policy done, and it’s one that has played well with Arizona voters, who often boast about how independent they are. McSally, meanwhile, has continued to link herself to Trump in a bet that this connection will be enough to rally members of the GOP’s conservative base in November, even as she’s lost moderates. She’s focused some on her biography as the first woman to fly in a combat mission for the Air Force, but much of her messaging has been dedicated to emphasizing her conservative bona fides. Latinx voters are poised to have huge influence over the election, which could bode well for Democrats A big factor in Arizona’s leftward shift is the uptick in Latinx voters in the state. In 2018, Latinx voters overwhelmingly favored Democrats, with 70 percent supporting Sinema while 30 percent backed McSally. And since the last presidential election, Latinx voter share in the electorate has grown from 19.6 percent to 24.6 percent, with thousands of younger voters reaching voting age. According to Garcia, more than 100,000 new Latinx voters have turned 18 in recent years — and Latinx voters are younger, on average, than white voters in the state. It’s important to note that Latinx voters are not a monolith; the majority who live in Arizona are Mexican American and more likely to be left-leaning. According to the ABC News/Washington Post survey this week, a higher proportion of Latinx voters in Arizona favored Biden than in Florida, for example, a trend that’s indicative of the diversity among members of the group. The pandemic is ultimately an issue at the forefront for all Arizonans, including Latinx voters, who have been disproportionately impacted by it. “For the most part, Covid-19 and the cost of health care are overwhelmingly top issues,” says Edward Vargas, a researcher for polling firm Latino Decisions. “What we’ve seen in our polling is that they trust Democrats much more in addressing issues toward Covid-19.” Both campaigns have focused more of their efforts on reaching Latinx voters — including participating in a virtual forum that will air in October — who historically haven’t seen as much formal outreach from candidates. In 2018, because of more dedicated organizing driven by advocacy groups including LUCHA and Mi Familia Vota, Latinx voter turnout saw a spike compared to 2014. Experts say they expect this same energy — if not more — in 2020. “I think it’s going to be a record-setting election,” says Vargas. The fight for control of the Senate and the presidency looms over this race Because of how she’s positioned herself, McSally’s fate is viewed as inextricably tied to Trump’s. “I do think that the strategy for the president — and Martha McSally — is making sure that the Trump supporters came out of the woodwork to support him in 2016, the play right now is to make sure that those people turn out,” says Romero. McSally has also repeatedly emphasized that her seat is a bulwark against potential Democratic control of the Senate, an effort aimed at targeting those same Republicans, especially as the GOP seeks to confirm a Supreme Court nominee to take the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. “Arizona is the tipping point for whether Chuck Schumer is going to be in charge in the Senate,” McSally said during an August appearance on CBS News. “A vote for Mark Kelly is a vote for ... the radical left agenda.” Matt York/AP Vice President Mike Pence greets Sen. Martha McSally at a Veterans for Trump campaign rally in Litchfield Park, Arizona, on September 18. In the past week, the two candidates provided a glimpse of how they’d handle the Supreme Court nomination: McSally swiftly backed a vote on Trump’s Supreme Court pick, while Kelly argued that a nominee should be put forth by whoever wins the general election. One of McSally’s chief arguments is, “Let’s make sure we don’t lose that second seat and that the Republicans don’t lose the Senate in 2020,” says Rochwalik, the Phoenix political consultant. The pivotal role Arizona could play in determining control of the Senate has also meant that an overwhelming amount of funding has been flowing into this race, with Kelly, in particular, raising a staggering sum. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Kelly had raked in more than $45 million as of a July report, dwarfing McSally, who had brought in $30 million as of a September report. If Kelly can channel this support as effectively as Sinema did, he could see a repeat of her success, too. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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