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Story highlights

Julian Zelizer: Mitch McConnell is a brilliant practitioner of procedural warfare

As Senate Democrats decide how to fight this administration, they would do well to look at what Republicans have done, he says

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He also is the co-host of the podcast “Politics & Polls.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

Politics ain’t beanbag, so the saying goes. And Republicans live by these words.

When Senate Democrats on the Finance Committee finally showed some grit by boycotting the vote over President Donald Trump’s nominees for secretary of treasury, Steven Mnuchin, and secretary of health and human services, Tom Price – two of the most controversial picks to come from the White House – Republicans simply changed the rules.

Although the committee rules stipulate that there needed to be a quorum with one member from the minority party present to vote on a nominee, Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah and the committee Republicans suspended the rules by unanimous consent. With a statement that begged for the chyron “irony alert,” Hatch justified the action as a response to the “unprecedented obstruction on the part of our colleagues.”

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Any Democrat who has experienced the hardball tactics of the tea party era couldn’t help but roll their eyes.

Throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, Republicans on Capitol Hill were willing to practice a style of ruthless, smash-mouth politics where the legislative rules are used as a brutal weapon to stop their opponents from making any progress on their agenda.

Republicans threatened to send the nation into default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. They used the filibuster as a routine tactic. They gridlocked many of President Obama’s nominees, including Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, who was never even allowed a hearing, let alone a vote on the Senate floor. Almost any time that President Obama asked for bipartisan support, most members of the party stood firm and voted no.

Sen. Mitch McConnell is a brilliant practitioner of procedural warfare. He understands that the rules in Congress are not simply a backdrop to the action, they are the mechanism through which partisan combat takes place. What has been striking about McConnell and his colleagues in the House and Senate is that they are willing to use the rules in the most ruthless fashion possible.

While obstruction cost Republicans in the court of public opinion – and didn’t inspire much confidence that the party knew how to govern – the Republicans were willing to take their chances.

In their minds, the benefits that came from stopping the President’s agenda and energizing party activists around a combative, fighting style would eventually pay off. They also made the bet that in the end, voters blame the President when nothing gets done in Washington, not the Congress, even if the House and Senate are in the hands of the opposition.

Now that Republicans have control of the White House as well, they are using the tools to push the President’s agenda forward. Despite some important points of contention, such as on free-trade agreements, the Republican Party is remarkably united and disciplined on most other issues. They know what they want, much of which President Trump is signaling that he will deliver and they are willing to do whatever it takes within the boundaries of the rules to get it done.

For all the chaos and tumult in the Trump White House, this is a strength upon which the entire party is depending.

With all the attention on President Trump, in many ways the real action is taking place in Congress, where they are smoothing the way for very rightward leaning appointees, demonstrating almost no resistance to the President’s most controversial actions, such as the executive order on refugees, and preparing to move forward with a legislative menu of tax cuts, deregulation and higher military spending that must be making Ronald Reagan smile in his grave.

If Senate Democrats dare to filibuster the Supreme Court appointment of Neil Gorsuch, it’s safe to bet that no Senate Republicans will defect from the President and the GOP will do whatever it takes to get enough Democrats from swing states to back the nominee.

It is not difficult to imagine that if there is a filibuster, Sen. McConnell would turn to Harry Reid’s playbook to employ the nuclear option of jettisoning the right to endless talk altogether. Indeed, President Trump has already encouraged him to do so.

So, as Senate Democrats start to make decisions about how they intend to fight this administration, they would do well to look at what Republicans achieved. They might see that even if obstruction and legislative grandstanding is ugly and turns off voters, it can be a useful tool toward larger partisan objectives.

On great matters of principle, which can include a Supreme Court nominee that stands for a set of values that they believe would move the nation in the wrong direction, the toughest legislative fight possible could be just the right elixir for mobilizing party activists – and it could be an effective tool in forcing a president away from a particular direction.

If a party is willing to deal with the inevitable heat that comes from using roughhouse tactics, it’s possible, as Republicans learned in 2016, to come out on the winning side of politics and policy. Indeed, the first serious crack in the Republican offensive has appeared, with two GOP senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, saying they would oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary.

And if Democrats are worried about the apparent hypocrisy of doing what they criticized Republicans for doing, they probably shouldn’t. After all, Senate Republicans now insist that Democrats have an obligation to give Gorsuch a fair hearing, despite the obvious contradiction with how Republicans treated Garland.

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The biggest danger, of course, is what all of this legislative warfare does to the democratic process. As both parties get deeper and deeper into the muck – and this is something on the minds of many Democrats – there will be growing concerns over how all this effects our ability to govern and responsibly resolve the great problems of the day.

Given that the Supreme Court has now only had eight members since Justice Antonin Scalia died last February 13, those risks are apparent to everyone in the upper chamber.

But Republicans have shown that there is a space between total destruction of the political process and old-fashioned congressional combat where Democrats have an opportunity to slow down the rapid fire activity of the White House.

Back in the 1960s, liberals like Missouri Democrat Richard Bolling discovered that the only way to fight the conservatives of the day, Southern Democratic committee chairmen who remained in office for decades, was to organize, mobilize and fight back through the rules upon which the Dixiecrats had depended to stop domestic policies like civil rights.

In short, if Democrats are going to stand any chance of stopping the transformational changes that are looming, they may well need to look much more closely at the Republicans as potential models for a path forward.