We Won on Betsy DeVos—Even if She is Confirmed

This is not some Orwellian proclamation—War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. This is an observation about political capital.

Cabinet votes are never this contentious. This is partially because when they get this contentious, the nominees pulls themselves from consideration so that it doesn’t get to a vote. But DeVos and Trump have plowed forward.

Importantly, Senators have been under siege about this. Any Republican who is voting for DeVos—and that appears to be all but two of them of them as I write this—has considered how this is going to play in the press. The Senate in particular is designed so that they have a few of these votes against the will of the people in them. This is not all bad; the original logic was that voters do not always consider long-term ramifications. The batch of Senators who was just elected can consider six years of effects before facing elections, meaning they are somewhat insulated from the passion around any given vote. The truth is that the Senate is not designed to bend to every bit of public input, and on treaties and votes about war that’s especially good for the nation.

The firestorm that just hit the Senate is taking its toll, even though the body is designed to absorb it. The 6:30 a.m. cloture vote to end debate last Friday was, to say the least, unusual. It was designed to ensure DeVos got through as fast as possible. A confident Majority Leader need not have done that. McConnell has the catch-22 that even if he wants to dump DeVos or would just as soon pretend all this never happened, that has no endgame. She would be replaced by someone of Trump’s choice and the whole fracas goes back to committee. For McConnell, the only way out is through. He wants to dump this mess on the White House and move on with his agenda.

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“Here”, of course, was the President’s desk, not the Majority Leader’s.

Unfortunately, if DeVos gets through, it will be hard to feel like we had an impact. I promise you, the fact that Senators are literally trying to escape their own town halls is a good sign. Remind yourself and everyone you know: we changed the game. If we keep doing this, the McConnell will have to give concessions to his members seeking reelection. They can only give two Senators a pass per vote, and the optics of having Pence break a bunch of ties is bad. The long-term effect of this kind of campaign will keep changing the narrative on The Hill.

Political scientists call this sort of thing “political capital”. Every Senator has a stockpile of goodwill with their constituents at the moment they are elected; otherwise, how could they have gotten a majority? Every contentious vote spends some of that. Senators are spending a lot of political capital in these early weeks on a few theories: the opposition might get tired, reelection is two to six years away, voting against Betsy DeVos opens them up to White House criticism, and there is no guarantee DeVos’s replacement won’t generate a contentious vote. Each of these votes erodes the political capital of GOP Senators regardless of the final outcome.

Its obviously better to stop DeVos, but remember, DeVos winning a contentious vote is less of a loss than DeVos sailing through.

 

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