As told to THINK editor Meredith Bennett-Smith; edited for clarity.
President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address on Tuesday, but the state of our union broadly has been important topic of discussion for some time. The Senate in particular has become pretty damn dysfunctional. There have always been moments in history when things were not smooth, but this is a moment when the Senate has quit working the way it has traditionally always worked — the way it was intended to work.
There have always been moments in history when things were not smooth, but this is a moment when the Senate has quit working the way it has traditionally always worked.
There are really smart, great people in the Senate from both parties. I understand why people are unforgiving of those Republican senators who are not speaking out against some of the egregious things this president has done so far. This does not mean that all hope is lost, because there are a lot of Republicans who, at least on a policy basis, are still working behind the scenes to mitigate the damage. That’s a small silver lining. But there’s also a lot to be worried about.
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In my first year in the Senate, we voted on hundreds of amendments. In my last year in the Senate, we voted on a few dozen. What does that show us? Power has been concentrated in the offices of the leaders and big bills are increasingly being written behind closed doors instead of through an open amendment process. Most of this has been motivated by a desire to protect party members, not to serve the American people. When you vote on tough issues, you're going to make a lot of people mad. If you make it so never have to vote on tough issues, the idea is that you never have to compromise — and somehow that makes you politically stronger.
But I don't agree with that. I think that if you come to the Senate, you should be willing to take the tough votes and make the tough compromises. (And I was from a very tough state; no matter how I voted on anything, about half the people were mad at me.) When you concentrate power in a few places, not as much gets done and the hard problems that Americans want us to get after, like prescription drug prices, like immigration reform, like the cost of college education, you can't get those problems solved. This has led people to become very cynical about the fact that Washington doesn't work. And when you have cynicism, you elect presidents like Donald Trump.
I don't know how we break this cycle, because the people in power like the fact that they have all the power now. If you're Mitch McConnell, do you really want to give up power to a committee chairman? Or do you want everybody to have to come to you and your staff to get things done? McConnell also likes the idea of protecting his members, because the thing he cares about the most is staying the majority floor leader. He cares more about having 50-plus Republican senators than any one policy issue. This is his motivation every day. And thus, he is going to twist and distort the process to protect his members no matter what.
To be fair, throughout history there have been leaders who have probably been as focused as McConnell is on the political side rather than the policy side. But he's in the Hall of Fame — what happened to Merrick Garland is a good example. It takes a lot of nerve to basically thumb your nose at the Constitution and say we're not even going to consider a presidential nominee for the Supreme Court. These senators love to wave the Constitution around — until they don’t.
I don’t think history is going to judge the Republican Party kindly for what it is doing now. But there’s a reason why most whispers of dissension stay behind the scenes: Trump’s base loves Trump. It’s not complicated. What we need in our country at moments like this are people of courage. But Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake had courage — and look what happened. They retired, and I don't think either one of them really wanted to retire. I think they were forced out because they dared to go up against a popular president within their party.
As long as Trump remains popular within his base I don’t know if we’re going to see a lot of profiles in courage in the Republican Party.
Relatedly, I think the Republican Party is shrinking, in part because of this presidency. The GOP may have gained some white working-class voters, but they've lost a lot of college-educated voters. This means the dynamics of the parties are shifting somewhat, although we know that such shifts are by no means permanent. My party — the Democratic party — has been much more of a champion of the issues that impact working people. Whether it's workplace conditions, or whether it's safety-net programs, or whether it's things like minimum wage, or whether it's protecting pensions.
Although they don’t say it publicly, privately former Republican colleagues have told me that Trump really is nuts. They’ve described meetings that they’ve had with him as painful because he just doesn't know the subject matter, doesn't even understand the subject. Clearly, Trump is someone who has no intellectual curiosity. It’s hard to listen to these stories when Trump still commands so much public support from his party. But sadly, as long as he remains popular within his base I don’t know if we’re going to see a lot of profiles in courage in the GOP.