Democrats Shouldn’t Play by McConnell’s Rules. Fight Back.

  • The GOP wants us to forget what they actually represent.
  • Mitch McConnell is focused “on the future,” allowing his party to forget about the recent past.
  • Democrats need to hold the minority party accountable as soon as possible.
  • Eoin Higgins is a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

On Monday, Mitch McConnell announced that the GOP wants to look to the future, not to the past. It’s a convenient way of looking at things for the Republican Party, allowing them to sidestep their complicity in the misdeeds of the Donald Trump administration and making an argument against the current government.

A savvy, or even reasonably competent political party wouldn’t let the GOP forget their role in the very recent past. But the Democrats are not that party. 

Over and over again, McConnell has outfoxed Democrats in domestic political fights, forcing the ruling party to negotiate with itself by stonewalling them on their popular agenda. The Senate Minority leader is unfazed by any charges of brazen hypocrisy, and why shouldn’t he be? The Democratic Party has no interest in holding their opponents accountable, and that refusal has had a dire effect on the path of the country.

After running on promises to not only rescue the US from Trump and Trumpism but also to reinvigorate the social safety net, Democrats — once they’re in control of Congress and the White House — have been loath to exercise their power to the fullest extent. The narrow margin of control in the Senate allows McConnell and the GOP to block any legislation via their manipulation of the filibuster, and Democrats do not appear to have the appetite to break that method of obstruction. 

As the GOP works to undermine the Democratic agenda, the blue party should avoid playing by Republican rules and make sure that Republicans are tied to Trump and the unpopular policies of his presidency. Doing anything less is political malpractice as Biden tries to get his agenda through Congress.

Democrats have repeatedly allowed Republicans to rewrite history to underplay the right’s role in the country’s worst moments. In recent years, that message has come from President Barack Obama, who said we should look forward, not back, when the nation was ready to hold his predecessor, George W. Bush. It also comes from President Joe Biden, whose belief in the mythical, unicorn-like “good Republican” gave the GOP a preemptive blame-free way to rid themselves of the former president — the purest example of Republican ideology in the modern age. 

To McConnell and his party, ridding themselves of the unpopular figure who has come to define their ideology in the public eye is an essential first step in rehabilitating themselves for the coming midterms. It’s a strategy they used to take Congress in 2010 during the Tea Party wave; allowing Democrats to wash the nation’s hands of Bush after eight years opened the door to rebranding as the nation’s libertarian-adjacent right-wing. 

All the while, the undercurrents of the modern GOP have been there. Racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia — core tenets of the Republican Party’s driving ideology — were drivers of the Tea Party wave, which rather remarkably managed to spin the Affordable Care Act into a racial dog whistle, due in large part to the treatment of Black lawmakers during the debate over the legislation.

In today’s GOP, dominated by Trump and his hangers-on in media like Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, the hate is more open and pronounced. But without accountability, there’s little hope of tying the party to what it believes. And that’s exactly McConnell’s gamble. 

The Republican Party takes pride in its conservatism and rejection of progress, which explains its approach to governing. For decades, Republicans have used their political power ruthlessly to institute a political project that’s only become more unpopular over time. Using culture war tropes and feeding the anger of their predominantly old, white base, GOP party leaders gain power and wield it with the foreknowledge that it won’t last forever. 

The Democrats do it differently. Committed to a fantastical worldview in which there’s a sector of the Republican Party devoted to bipartisanship and finding common ground, Democratic ideology holds that with enough time and patience, conservatives will come to their senses. 

That was the argument Biden made to voters on the campaign trail, promising Americans that with Trump out of the White House, the “fever would break” and the GOP would become pliant and friendly to working with Democrats on legislation. Ten months into his first term, it’s clear the president overstated his ability to pull Republicans back from the brink. 

What’s less than clear is if that means Biden and the Democrats will in turn adjust their approach to the minority party. They have a strong bill of goods to sell the American people. They just have to make a case for it. 

Biden and his agenda were both incredibly popular in the immediate wake of Trump. The new president had the wind at his back as he worked to deliver relief to American families from the economic destitution left by his predecessor’s haphazard response to COVID. 

But in recent months, voters have turned against the president as they watch him and his party trip over one another in their attempts to pass the basics of the program they ran on nationally. Most of the blame for that lies within the Democratic Party: their lack of internal discipline and coherent messaging, a refusal to make members pay for bucking leadership.

Yet just as much of the problem has to do with the refusal by Democrats to expose the role of GOP lawmakers in the blocking of legislation. The primary reason conservative Democratic senators like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin can make demands of their party and pare down social spending is that Republicans are not coming to the negotiating table at all. It’s one party rule in DC, by design, and the GOP isn’t going to stop that while they’re not in power. 

Pointing out why this is — that the modern GOP is in thrall of the former president and their radicalized base see any sort of cooperation with the democrats as tantamount to treason — is the kind of thing that would require that Democrats directly address the past. Allowing voters to forgive and forget is the kind of disastrous political move that will ensure a GOP resurgence and kill the Democratic Party’s ability to govern for at least another three years. 

Democrats could address this problem easily. A concerted effort to tie the GOP directly to their unpopular policies and personalities of the past —and their continued adherence to those beliefs and leaders — would shift the narrative. As much as they wish they didn’t, Democrats control the federal government. They can set the stakes of the public conversation in their favor, if they want. Whether or not they do indeed want that, of course, is an open question.