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Defectors

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By Sarah Ewart – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I wish to dissent in part from my distinguished colleague, but only in part.

  • The norm of offering a degree of deference to executive cabinet nominations is a good norm.  It helps to ensure that governmental agencies will function normally even during periods of mixed government.
  • “Degree of deference” includes the option to fight hard against particularly problematic nominees.
  • The Republicans have largely held to this norm with respect to cabinet nominations, both in the minority and the majority (Ash Carter was confirmed 93-5 in February 2015).
  • The Republicans have demonstrated that it is possible to conform to this norm (as they did in 2009), while also pursuing a broader strategy of scorched-earth obstructionism.

Largely because of this, I am unmoved by arguments that votes for Trump cabinet nominations represent “capitulation,” or that they portend a future of Democratic surrender. For Senate Democrats these are wholly symbolic votes, but they offer multiple symbolic meanings; on the one hand, opposition to Trump, and on the other a commitment to the normal continuation of government. Both of these are important.

That said, I certainly agree that there are specific nominees who should engender more scrutiny and opposition from the Democrats.  I would target both Sessions (on general ideological grounds) and Devos (on grounds of utter incompetence, as well as ideology). And if the Democrats were in a position to block either nominee, I would concur with Erik’s formulation; a defector voting for Sessions or Devos should be presumed to draw a primary challenge with substantial support from the DSCC, national-level funding should be steered away from the defector, and the defector should suffer consequences in committee assignments.

But for a vote against Jeff Sessions that has purely symbolic consequences?  I can’t motivate myself to much enthusiasm for vigorous, costly counter-measures.  And in more general terms, I would caution against concluding, based on evidence of cabinet nomination votes, that the Democrats as a whole or in particular are likely to “surrender” or “capitulate” on substantive legislative matters.

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