Do Democrats alone govern America?

Republicans aren't beyond co-operating though, as proven by some important legislation passed in the Senate

US Vice President Kamala Harris waves upon leaving the Senate chamber after the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act during a marathon voting session known as a 'vote-a-rama', on Capitol Hill in Washington, on August 7. EPA
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After more than a year of false starts, dead ends, frustration and despair, Democrats were finally able to pass the first major piece of US climate change legislation in a generation, bundled with important healthcare and tax innovations. They once again had to rely on their razor-thin 50-50 Senate majority, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie. This pattern of significant, and even strikingly dynamic, legislation and governance by the Democrats – in the face of near-total resistance by Republicans – begs the question: are Democrats fated to try governing the country alone?

This achievement, which has yet to be fully appreciated both in the US and internationally, was only secured after months of torturous internal Democratic negotiations and a marathon "vote-a-rama” session in the Senate on Sunday in which Republicans spent over 15 hours trying to derail the vote with a range of thorny amendments. The left-wing independent Senator Bernie Sanders also, for a time, sought to put his liberal colleagues on the spot. There was last-minute bargaining until the very end, with conservative Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema intervening on behalf of hedge funds and private equity wealth.

Yet the historic package passed, capping off 17 months for US President Joe Biden and this Congress of remarkably intense activity and spectacular achievement. His predecessor, Donald Trump, in his full four years secured just one significant piece of legislation, a giant tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. To that could be added a large amount of deregulation via executive order, but little else. And both of those achievements – scaling back the funding and authority of government – could be fairly described as anti-governance.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gestures as he walks off the Senate floor after the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on August 7. EPA

Democrats would note that the first thing that happened under the Biden administration was a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that bailed out the whole economy, saved countless businesses and millions of jobs, and was also passed entirely by Democrats and against unified Republican opposition.

So, do Democrats have a point about governing the country alone? Yes and no.

Mr Trump's record of success was so dismal, and the Republican Party's evident disinterest in policy and legislation since he has emerged as its leader, it has certainly been looking that way for several years. The contrast between governance under Mr Trump and Mr Biden could hardly be starker.

Donald Trump, in his full four years secured just one significant piece of legislation

However, the actual tally is not quite that one-sided.

Democrats were able to secure at least some Republican support, particularly in the Senate, for several key pieces of legislation. Gun control, the crucial microchip and technology funding bill, the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, and a forthcoming plan to repair the outmoded and dangerous Electoral Count Act all required at least some Republican co-operation.

Democrats could easily insist they would have supported a serious infrastructure bill during the Trump presidency, but the Republican inability to even craft a proposal lets them entirely off the hook.

The most unified (meaningful) Senate vote under Mr Biden was the 99-1 approval of Nato membership for Finland and Sweden. It was opposed only by the radical right-wing Senator Josh Hawley, whose explanation was so garbled it appears he was simply pandering to anti-Nato sentiments in the party base stoked by Mr Trump.

The overarching reality appears to be that with sufficient Democratic leadership, Republicans, especially in the Senate, are still willing – at times and in a limited way – to engage in meaningful legislation and policy.

Unfortunately, the traditional political ideological spectrum is now only to be found among Democrats. As the prolonged negotiations over the climate, health and tax bill starkly demonstrated, there are at least two genuinely conservative Democratic senators. There are no liberal Republican senators. Indeed, it is hard to think of any liberal Republicans at all.

The fierce ideological struggle in the Republican Party is over personal fealty to Mr Trump. It is not anything to do with policy. The Party is being purged of such hard-right stalwarts as Liz Cheney, because she will not bend the knee to Mr Trump, repeat his lies about the last election or defend his attempted coup and the January 6 insurrection. That is entirely about personalities and not at all about ideas or principles.

It is at the state level one finds Republican interest in policy. Republican-dominated state legislatures are racing to ban abortion, while others are restricting teaching about race, history, gender and sexuality. And in some key states, Republican activists are seeking to seize control of the electoral process while, alarmingly, condemning the 2020 election as rigged. So, unfortunately, there is a distinct dynamism in state Republican parties.

Among the splits emerging within the Republican Party are between those who want to pursue Mr Trump's agenda of "dismantling the administrative state" through federal deregulation and those, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who are increasingly using the power of state-level government to impose political correctness and ideological narratives, as well as reward friends and punish adversaries, including mega-corporations such as Disney.

It is conceivable that Mr DeSantis or some other post-Trump figure could define and pursue a political and ideological agenda that is genuinely new, taking its radical and authoritarian cue from the former president but breaking with the anti-governance attitudes he shared with traditional conservatives. We shall see.

For now, however, the Democrats can take justifiable pride in having negotiated a difficult and historic piece of legislation among conservatives and liberals, all within their own ranks and without any support from Republicans, and having secured a compromise measure that, particularly on climate change, will have global and momentous significance. The bill goes to the House for final passage, which is all but secured, as early as next Friday.

Pizza wheeled in to The Lyndon Baines Johnson Room off the Senate Chamber before final passage of the Inflation Reduction Act at the US Capitol, on August 7 in Washington. The Senate worked overnight as they moved towards the passage of the deal. Getty Images / AFP

Democrats clearly have a governing agenda rather than a totemic figurehead and real ideological range. And, most importantly, they have again demonstrated that, if need be, they can and will govern alone.

Though there is little they want to do, and not much they're willing to support, Republicans – especially in the Senate – are still at times willing to co-operate, especially on national security. Unfortunately, as I explained in these pages last week, most recently they had to be literally tricked into it.

Democrats could plausibly lay claim to at least 80 per cent of the existing impulse to governance in Washington. But that still leaves 15 or 20 per cent for some Republicans, sometimes. So, Democrats cannot quite claim to be governing the country entirely alone. Almost. But not quite.

Published: August 08, 2022, 2:00 PM