More Independents in the Senate -- Please
Whatever we wake up to on the morning of Nov. 7, we need a few good men, and women, to deny Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell or Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer a majority in January of 2019.
What we have witnessed in the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who awaits a vote to ascend to the Supreme Court any day now, has been a debacle that shows how desperately the U.S. Senate needs a mediator. Senators from one party, opposed to Kavanaugh from the start, distorted his record and criticized the judge for behaving “entitled” to a high court seat, while senators from the other party -- before his accuser even testified -- said publicly they would support him no matter what information the hearing brought forth. And just one member of the majority criticized Kavanaugh for his potentially disqualifying, partisan attacks on his critics, citing President Trump and the Clintons as motivating factors behind the allegations of sexual assault. Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake is the only Republican to date who has said publicly what others concede privately: that Kavanaugh’s political rhetoric in his opening statement last week was exactly what Supreme Court nominees and justices are supposed to reject in their role as impartial jurists.
Anguished at what he saw “ripping the country apart,” Flake voted to send Kavanaugh’s confirmation from the Judiciary Committee to the Senate floor on the condition that the FBI complete an investigation before the full chamber voted on confirmation. When asked by “60 Minutes” reporter Scott Pelley whether he would have made a last-minute appeal that would delay Kavanaugh’s nomination had he been running for re-election, Flake said, “No, not a chance.” He was almost laughing while he answered. “There’s no value to reaching across the aisle. There’s no currency for that anymore. There’s no incentive.”
Flake has made clear his lament -- in a book, interviews and Senate floor speeches -- that the takeover of the Republican Party by President Trump has nearly destroyed it. But since announcing his retirement last October, Flake has never left the GOP and has continued to vote with it. That got him nowhere with partisans on the right, who are excoriating him for reopening the confirmation process for another seven days, but which was the only path to approval that moderate Republicans could defend. When Kavanaugh likely ascends to the Supreme Court, won’t he have Flake to thank?
Some Senate Democrats and Republicans are already considering an independent coalition -- one that is committed not to a policy agenda, but to the principle of working toward the greater good -- reaching the necessary consensus that sustains governance.
Joel Searby, an independent consultant who serves as senior strategist at Unite America -- a group promoting and supporting independent candidates nationwide -- has been speaking to chiefs of staff for seven senators from both parties about the possibility, as well as Alan Frumin, the former Senate parliamentarian. “We have a roadmap mechanically for how it would work,” he said. Searby won’t name the senators, who remain as of yet uncommitted and concerned about how to navigate a legislative career outside the two-party fundraising system.
It’s not hard to imagine that -- after Election Day, depending on who won or lost -- some of those independent-minded men and women might include Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Ben Sasse, Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Chris Coons, Michael Bennet and Mark Warner. Sasse recently declared, in a less than subtle way on Twitter, that he has considered leaving the GOP. He calls himself “an independent conservative.”
Gallup polling finds 44 percent of Americans don’t belong to the Republican or Democratic party, a 35 percent increase since 2004 in the 31 states that register voters by party. In more than half those states, independents outnumber one or both parties.
As social media fuels tribal anarchy in politics -- a zero sum game where one side must win and the other must lose -- unaffiliated senators would be a powerful weapon against the decline our Founders feared and constructed a system to prevent.
Partisans won’t protect our increasingly fragile democracy -- they will not, and they cannot. Because the parties no longer persuade, and only seek to mobilize their extremes on each side, their representatives are elected to fight, and not to fix problems. Once elected they must deliver the fights they promise in their campaigns. Republicans can’t vanquish half the country, and neither can Democrats. But both behave as if they intend to.
While the duopoly is designed to shut out a third way, it’s clear now the parties themselves are falling apart, and the system is failing Americans of all political stripes. Polling bears this out: Most voters want the parties to work together to solve the nation’s problems, and most voters believe both parties are increasingly out of the mainstream.
Only independents can make the two parties work with each other instead of against each other. Partisans will run for cover, supplanted by independents who will step up to build coalitions necessary to govern. Whether it was the Affordable Care Act passed only by Democrats or the tax reform bill passed only by Republicans, what the last decade has proven is that party line votes in Congress are mostly meaningless, and when used to force significant change they turn out to be unpopular. Problems aren’t solved without both parties. Period.
As Flake steps down from his seat in December, Collins and Murkowski may seem the last of a dying breed, but independents have so permeated each of their home state legislatures in Maine and Alaska that party line votes there are no longer possible. Alaska’s governor, Bill Walker, is an independent, while the largest voting bloc in Maine consists of independents. Maine already has one independent U.S. senator, Angus King.
Reforms that will help free us from the trap of the two-party system are plentiful but will require energized advocacy from voters and independent-minded legislators at the state, local and federal level. They include: ranked-choice voting, paths to opening primaries, as well as reforms to redistricting and campaign finance laws. We won’t have to wait for a grassroots movement if just three senators step up now and open up our government again.
The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus will seek rules changes in the House that will increase minority participation and force a more bipartisan process when the next Congress is sworn in.
The status quo is unacceptable; as long as our government is held hostage we will continue careening down a destructive path that threatens a catastrophic debt crisis and our long-term national security.
We need a revolution in the U.S. Senate, just a few patriots who will put their country before their party and step into the breach.