Ezra Klein: Democrats need to dump the Senate filibuster or they'll lose in 2022

Vox founder Ezra Klein is now working at the NY Times. Today the Times published a lengthy argument by Klein framed as a red alert warning to Democrats. It’s titled “Democrats, Here’s How to Lose in 2022. And Deserve It.” The gist of Klein’s argument is that the last time Democrats had complete control of the government they blew it. Klein warns they are going to blow it again unless they take bold strokes.

The last time Democrats won the White House, the Senate and the House was in 2008, and they didn’t squander the moment. They passed the stimulus and Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. They saved the auto industry and prevented a second Great Depression and, for good measure, drove the largest investment in clean energy infrastructure in American history.

But too little of their work was evident in 2010, when Democrats were running for re-election. The result was, as President Barack Obama put it, “a shellacking.” Democrats lost six Senate seats and 63 House seats. They also lost 20 state legislatures, giving Republicans control of the decennial redistricting process.

Klein suggests that Democrats could be looking at a repeat of that process in 2022 if they don’t do things differently. But here’s where I think he gets into trouble. Klein’s analysis of why Democrats took the shellacking in 2010 is, shall we say, flawed.

Tom Perriello is the executive director of U.S. programs at the Open Society Foundations. But in 2009, he was a newly elected Democrat from Virginia’s Fifth district, where he’d narrowly beaten a Republican. Two years later, Republicans took back his seat. They still hold it. Democrats cannot allow a wipeout in 2022 like they suffered in 2010, and looking back, Perriello told me what he thought Democrats could’ve done to save his seat.

“There’s a belief among a certain set of Democrats that taking an idea and cutting it in half makes it a better idea when it just makes it a worse idea,” he says. As we talk, he ticks off the examples: The stimulus bill was whittled down and down, ending far beneath what economists thought necessary to rescue the economy. The House’s more populist health reform bill — which included a public option, heftier subsidies and was primarily financed by taxing the rich — was cast aside in favor of the Senate’s stingier, more complex proposal.

The argument he’s making is one that a lot of progressives have been making for years, i.e. we’ll have more success if we just go bigger! In this case he’s arguing that a more generous (meaning more expensive) Obamacare could have won people over much more quickly. But frankly that’s just nonsense. Obamacare didn’t pass until March of 2010. The shellacking happened eight months later. There was no way any variant of the bill would have prevented it from happening.

The shellacking happened because Democrats forced this major legislation through Congress using reconciliation. The Tea Party formed because people were angry about the process and the costs. Even President Obama understood this at the time:

A sober President Obama acknowledged Wednesday that he took “a shellacking” in the midterm election and that his once highflying relationship with the American voter had hit rocky times.

“There is an inherent danger in being in the White House and being in the bubble,” said the president, whose party on Tuesday lost control of the House in a historic Republican wave…

“When I won election in 2008, one of the reasons I think that people were excited about the campaign was the prospect that we would change how business is done in Washington,” he said. “And we were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn’t change how things got done. And I think that frustrated people.”

He seemed contrite when asked specifically about the wheeling and dealing that he and the administration engaged in during the health care debate.

The negotiations, he said, were an “ugly mess” and affected how people ultimately viewed the final legislation. “I regret that we couldn’t have made the process more, healthier than it ended up being,” he said. “But I think the outcome was a good one.”

Remember all those special deals Democrats made with individual Senators to get them on board? People didn’t like that. Obama was right that it was an ugly mess. That’s why Democrats got their rear ends handed to them in 2010. They went too big and played too ugly.

But Ezra Klein is claiming almost the opposite. He’s saying the lesson is that if only they’d gone bigger things would have been better. And as far as the process is concerned, Klein’s major takeaway is that it’s once again time to make an ugly mess:

Here’s the simple truth facing the Democratic agenda: In a Senate without a filibuster, they have some chance of passing some rough facsimile of the agenda they’ve promised. In a Senate with a filibuster, they do not.

Klein acknowledges that this probably can’t happen because Sen. Joe Manchin has already said he won’t support it. So it’s not clear what the point of recommending the impossible is. In any case, one of the best parts of this argument is the bit where he dispenses with the last four years of whining about “norms.” Maybe now it the time to restore those norms we’ve all heard so much about? Nah, to hell with it.

To give Manchin his due, a more high-minded fear — shared by others in his caucus — is that we have just come through a long, ugly period of partisan norm-breaking. Surely the answer to Trump’s relentless assaults on decorum, to Mitch McConnell’s rewriting of Senate rules, is a return to the comity they cast off, to the traditions they’ve violated, to the bipartisanship they abandoned. A version of this may appeal to Biden, too: Trump stretched the boundaries of executive authority, so perhaps he should retreat, offering more deference to Congress and resisting opportunities to go it alone, even when stymied by Republicans. But if this is what he means by “unity,” it will just empower the merchants of division.

All of that “norms” talk sounded good when the GOP was in charge but now it’s our time. Specifically, Klein’s argument is that unless Democrats somehow ditch the filibuster, Biden’s promise to defeat the coronavirus through an outstanding vaccine rollout are doomed.

Biden’s team understands that. Their $20 billion plan to use the full might of the federal government to accelerate vaccinations hits all the right notes. But it’s attached to their $1.9 trillion rescue plan, which needs 10 Republican votes it doesn’t have in order to pass over a filibuster (Senator Mitt Romney already dismissed it as “not well-timed”). Letting the resources required to vaccinate the country — and to set up mass testing and to prevent an economic crisis — become entangled in Republican obstruction for weeks or months would be a terrible mistake.

Does anyone else remember the rollout of the Obamacare website? After months of prep, the number of people enrolled on day 1 was zero because the website was a complete disaster which didn’t work at all. It took months to gradually repair it. I guess Klein has forgotten that because he seems absolutely confident that the Biden admin could crush this if it weren’t for that pesky filibuster.

To sum all of this up, Klein is offering progressives terrible advice to double down on the mistakes they made in 2008. Forget about norms and forget about the public’s reaction to changing the rules to force their unpopular agenda on the country. Just go for it and hope things are different this time. I honestly hope they take his advice so the GOP can shellac them again two years from now. And then we’ll see how they feel about a Republican Senate with no filibuster.