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OPINION

For Democrats, half measures won’t do

If they take power, they must wield it aggressively and without sentiment.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, center, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, right, will have to decide how aggressively they'll wield power next year if Democrats retake the White House and the Senate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, center, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, right, will have to decide how aggressively they'll wield power next year if Democrats retake the White House and the Senate.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

With just over two weeks to go until Election Day, Democrats appear poised to win the White House and take back control of the US Senate. The potential for complete Democratic control of Washington has led to inevitable questions about how far the party is willing to go should it again wield broad political power. Many Democrats, including Joe Biden, are expressing skepticism about large, fundamental political changes. As has often been the case, they are thinking about half measures when the only course of action for Democrats is clear: a full-measure approach.

That means doing away with the Senate filibuster so the GOP can’t obstruct the Democratic agenda. It means passing legislation that has already made it through the Democratic-controlled House to expand voting rights. It means making the District of Columbia and possibly Puerto Rico states — and increasing the Democratic advantage in the Senate by as many as four seats. And it means expanding district and circuit courts and adding at least four new seats to the Supreme Court so Democrats can create a liberal majority.

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These are hardball moves. They represent a break with notions of bipartisanship that some congressional Democrats still cling to, despite all that’s happened in recent years. But hoping that Republicans will suddenly return to a more traditional, measured politics is a fool’s errand — which is why Democrats should push through all these changes on day one, creating an immediate and fundamental change in the way the American government operates.

Taking these steps will of course cause Republicans to go berserk. Fox News will talk about nothing else. But so what? By and large, voters don’t care about, or much understand, process issues. And because the country is so intensely polarized, support for these measures will generally fall along partisan lines. Democrats will think they are great, Republicans will be apoplectic, and swing voters — to the extent they are paying attention — likely won’t care. And if these changes do roil the waters, that’s all the more reason to make them all at once in January 2021, so that by the time voters go to the polls in November 2022, the shock value will have worn off.

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Whatever controversy these measures inspire, it will be swamped by the policy benefits they will bring. Republicans will probably want to stop Democrats from passing a stimulus bill to revive the economy. But that will pretty hard to do when there’s no filibuster. Indeed, without the filibuster, Democrats can pass a whole raft of legislation that Americans have long demanded but Republicans have long blocked — expanding health care access, fighting climate change, reducing drug prices, expanding background checks for gun purchasers, and raising the minimum wage.

The GOP will no doubt push back with dubious legal challenges to such policy achievements — like the trio of cases that have come before the Supreme Court seeking to repeal Obamacare — but good luck with that strategy if there’s a liberal majority on the high court.

All of these full measures have the added benefit of being good for democracy. How could any fair-minded person object to ensuring that more Americans can vote, and to providing congressional representation to Americans in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico who are currently denied it? What is wrong with preventing a minority of senators from using the filibuster to stop legislation that most Americans want to see become law? Why is restoring ideological balance to the federal judiciary after the GOP’s underhanded efforts to impose a conservative majority bad for the country?

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This full-measure approach will also ensure Democrats maintain political control on the federal level for the foreseeable future. To some this might seem unfair, but considering that our current political system overrepresents small red states — and that Republicans on the state level have repeatedly used gerrymandering to maintain political dominance — what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

While a full-measure approach is the most reasonable, democratic, and shrewd strategy for Democrats, there is little chance they will pursue it. As sure as death and taxes, Senate Democrats will convince themselves that half measures are more politically expedient.

“Take things slow; don’t get too far ahead of the American people; what if Republicans retake power and don’t have the filibuster standing in their way?" will undoubtedly be the mantra in the Democratic cloakroom. But that’s pre-polarization thinking. Straddling the fence might have made sense when America had two heterogeneous political parties. Now most Democratic senators are from blue states and most Republican senators are from red states. With a handful of exceptions, senators need to mobilize their supporters more than persuade the undecided. The mistake for congressional Democrats would not be overreaching, but failing to reach far enough. In a political environment like this one, half measures get you nowhere.

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This is by no means an ideal future for American politics. Congress will look more and more like a parliamentary system, with the parties voting in lockstep. Dizzying political change could come every few years. But only those blind to reality will fail to recognize that American politics has been fundamentally transformed by polarization — and that political power must be wielded aggressively and without sentiment. The time for half measures is gone.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.