Why Democrats Caved

It’s what you do when you’ve lost.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks from a vote on Capitol Hill after the senate voted to advance a bill financing the government, January 22, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks after the senate voted to advance a bill financing the government on Monday in Washington. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Shortly after voting to end a government shutdown on Monday afternoon, a group of a 10 or so centrist Senate Democrats, along with a handful of Republicans, gave a press conference outside the chamber to congratulate themselves on the extraordinary bipartisan achievement of funding the government at current spending levels for another 17 days. This informal “common sense caucus”—or as Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly called it, “the potato chips and oranges caucus”—had been meeting in Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ office over the weekend to negotiate the handshake “arrangement” that will reopen the government.

The group included several Democrats who had voted to filibuster the previous spending bill on Friday, like Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, and New Hampshire Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen. They congratulated each other for what they’d secured: a commitment from the majority leader to debate immigration through regular order after Feb. 8 if no deal is struck beforehand.
That process could produce a bipartisan bill, such as the Gang of Six legislation, that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had not previously agreed to allow on the floor.

Looking at the smiles and backslapping among these Democrats, one couldn’t help but wonder: Do they have the faintest idea how pissed off the Democratic base is?

Democrats were not able to secure an immigration deal through the three-day shutdown, only a commitment to a future process that could produce such legislation. They also were not able to secure any commitment that House Republicans would take up the fruits of their labor. And yet cloture was invoked easily, 81 to 18, with only 16 of 49 Democrats voting nay.

The rage from activists was swift and unsparing.

“Today’s cave by Senate Democrats—led by weak-kneed, right-of-center Democrats—is why people don’t believe the Democratic Party stands for anything,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Stephanie Taylor said in a statement. “These weak Democrats hurt the party brand for everyone and make it harder to elect Democrats everywhere in 2018.”

“A lot of Democrats are channeling their inner Marco Rubio today,” tweeted MoveOn Washington Director Ben Wikler, referring to the oft-caving Florida senator. Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, called it a “betrayal.” CREDO labeled Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “the worst negotiator in Washington—even worse than Trump.”

Much of the criticism came from within the building, too, especially from the House side. “I do not see how a vague promise from the Senate Majority Leader about a vague policy to be voted on in the future helps the Dreamers or maximizes leverage the Democrats and American people have over the Republicans right now,” Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the most vocal advocate for Dreamers in Congress, said in a statement.

The furor mostly stemmed from a total lack of faith in McConnell’s willingness to uphold such a handshake agreement. It’s only been a few weeks, after all, since the majority leader failed to make good on agreements he reached with both Collins and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in exchange for their votes on tax reform. Why do Senate Democrats suddenly trust him to follow through on his immigration commitment?

A couple of Democrats said that while they don’t personally trust McConnell, they have faith in their colleagues who do.

“You’ve got to start trusting each other and working together at some point,” Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth said. “I have no trust in the Republican leadership, but I’m going to take a deep breath and show some trust in my moderate Republican colleagues who were willing to step forward on this.”

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey—who argued that McConnell made not just a promise to Senate Democrats, but “to the country”—said “I don’t know [McConnell] enough to say that I trust him, but I do trust the people who were in [Collins’ office] the last couple of days.”

Bill Nelson reiterated several times that the commitment from McConnell was “ironclad,” but his evidence for that was largely McConnell’s public statements and the “glare of the spotlight” applied to them. In other words: words.

“Bottom line,” Nelson said, cutting to the chase, “in order to get anything done, you’ve got to have good will and the ability to work together.”

New Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, meanwhile, said that “I’m going to take everybody at their word.” Ah, to be a freshman.

No one could really say the truth about why Democrats accepted this offer from McConnell: that it was the best they were going to get.

This shutdown was always going to be decided by the “blame game,” as annoying as that is to say. As each side made their arguments in recent days, Republicans had the more straightforward one—Democrats were responsible for the shutdown because they filibustered a funding bill in order to secure something else. A DACA fix is popular; shutting down the government over one is much less so, especially in many of the states Senate Democrats are trying to hold in November. The polling was beginning to gravitate in Republicans’ favor.

“I hear our numbers are dropping like a rock,” Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York told Bloomberg on Monday.

There is no compelling evidence that rejecting McConnell’s offer would have resulted in a better outcome for Democrats. Polling would have drifted further to Republicans’ side, and McConnell would have waited patiently to accept Schumer’s unconditional surrender. It is surprising that McConnell even offered a handshake agreement, and may have only done so to bring Flake and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham back on the team. Democrats chose to save face by accepting a less-than-“ironclad” commitment because that is what you do when you’ve made a losing tactical decision.