Last Friday week the US Supreme Court did what everyone expected and overturned Roe v Wade.
The initial Democratic reaction was limp, unorganised and unspecific. Nancy Pelosi talked of being “personally overwhelmed” and she read a poem. Not a particularly good one. Joe Biden focused on the importance of protests being calm and non-violent. Each asked people to vote Democrat. Neither said how such a vote would help reverse the decision.
The reaction was illustrative of their ingrained political instincts: toward caution, toward compromise, toward generalities. Instincts that no longer serve.
The ruling, and inept initial response, were in many ways representative of, and an inevitable culmination of, the last two decades of US party politics. Representative of the failure by the Democratic party to convert public support for their policy agenda into legislative control. And a culmination of the success of the Republican party in enacting their policies despite operating with a minority of public support.
For decades Mitch McConnell and his colleagues have waged a ruthless guerrilla war, caring only about the ultimate end goal, while Democrats have clung on to outdated ideas that such battles should be conducted with decorum and honour.
If they keep this up, they’re headed for electoral disaster in the midterm elections and a future dominated by the Republican minority.
The decisions of the Supreme Court wouldn’t be so relevant if the rest of the American system was set up to facilitate majority rule — but it isn’t.
Smaller states hold oversized influence in both the Senate and the Electoral College, establishing an ingrained bias toward rural, white voters.
The harsh reality is the Democrats don’t currently have the political power to deal with pressing issues. And they will need an almost unprecedented surge in turnout in the upcoming midterm elections to gain it by retaining their control of the House, and establishing a true majority in the Senate. An unlikely event.
Biden’s party has, according to the poll analysis site fivethirtyeight.com, about a 13pc chance of holding the House and a 50:50 chance of gaining a working Senate majority.
Those figures are influenced by historic patterns. In midterm elections Republicans turn out more than Democrats and voters for the party locked out of the Oval Office vote in greater numbers.
The only way to counteract this is to commit to a strategy designed to motivate those who turned out ‘for’ Biden, or rather ‘against’ Donald Trump, last November — not one designed to placate voters in the middle.
Vagueness is the enemy of enthusiasm and therefore turnout. And turnout is now the name of the game. The Democrats need to adapt to this reality. Voters back a fighter and are motivated by a fight. But only if they sense that the fight is worth winning.
The Democratic leadership needs to pinpoint and commit to a specific plan they will implement to recapture control from the courts and deal with abortion access and climate action. If they don’t, fatalism will cement itself in their voter base.
Biden took almost a week, but last Thursday he made the first step toward implementing the necessary plan. By announcing he supported a carve-out in the filibuster rule for abortion and privacy rights and that he wanted the Senate to codify the same rights into legislation, he indicated a willingness to act.
The president, and the Senate leadership, need to go further. They need to bring a vote, soon. Even if they lose, as they likely would, it would force the issue. It would prove they’re serious about acting, force moderate democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to expose their position and link a vote for Democrats with a clear outcome: Give us a real Democratic majority in November and we will enforce the will of the people and protect abortion rights.
Once this has been done, they need to think bigger. The removal of the filibuster entirely, term limits for Supreme Court judges and an increase in the numbers on the court have to be front and centre.
The political logic for not taking such radical steps is that it will set a precedent, that if Republicans gained control of the House, the Senate and the White House, they would then also add further justices.
Or that if the filibuster rule is removed, then it won’t be there to protect abortion rights if the Democrats are in a minority in future. Fine arguments in a vacuum; flawed arguments in the current context.
The arguments suppose that this iteration of the Republican party cares about precedent or established norms. They don’t. They care about winning. The party didn’t need a Democratic precedent for Mitch McConnell to refuse to give Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s court nominee, a Senate hearing in 2016.
Hypothetical scenarios pale in comparison to the proven danger of the present and likely future.
The Supreme Court has agreed to take on Moore v Harper, a case that asks them to endorse the idea that state legislatures have exclusive authority to set the rules for federal elections. If they rule in favour, state courts would no longer have any say.
In effect, this would free any party in control of a state’s government to set their own election rules — including for presidential elections. A dangerous prospect for any democracy.
If this happens, no obvious route back for the Democrats exists. If a party controls the rules of the elections, they control the result. The game would be up, the system could be permanently rigged. Those are the real stakes of the mid-term elections.
The Democrats need a majority. To achieve that, they need a brave plan. If we don’t see that soon, the chance to deliver on one may be gone forever.