INDIVISIBLE: A Practical Guide for Fixing Our Democracy

For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats will control both chambers of Congress and the White House—a “trifecta.” We know it’s close, a 50/50 split governed by a power sharing agreement that will have to be hammered out early on, but this still means we’ll have a real opportunity to pass and enact the type of bold legislation that we need to save our democracy and help our communities. With a trifecta, we can finally go on the offensive and push for the progressive changes we need to live in a thriving, functioning democracy. But let’s be clear: a trifecta offers an opportunity for transformative change—not a guarantee. We know, because we’ve been here before. In this chapter, we review four lessons we learned from our experience as Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill during the last Democratic trifecta.

What happened in the 111th Congress, the last time Democrats had a trifecta?

Barack Obama was (and is) an incredibly skilled leader and communicator who built an historic blue wave on his way to the White House in 2008. For the first time since 1993, Democrats returned to Washington, D.C. with a governing trifecta promising hope and change. As young congressional staffers, we were there to see some of those promises delivered; and, unfortunately, we were also there to witness in frustration so many that were not.

Democrats inherited a mess from the outgoing GOP president and a mandate from voters.

When Democrats took power in 2009, the economy was in freefall. There was a global recession brought on by Wall Street abuses, millions of Americans were losing their homes and their life savings, and millions more remained without health insurance. With control of the White House and large congressional majorities, Democrats kicked off the 111th Congress with an ambitious agenda, starting with the urgent need to deal with the economic crisis. Additionally, they promised to take action to reform the healthcare system, combat climate change, and pass immigration reform. The political opportunity was there, and expectations were high.

Democrats made progress—but they were stymied by backlash and bad-faith BS from Republicans.

Democrats kicked off with a stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which they tailored to attract Republican support. They spent over a year consumed in fruitless bipartisan negotiations over a healthcare reform package. By the time they finally passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on a party-line vote in March 2010, internal infighting had weakened the bill and a wave of grassroots backlash and Republican bad-faith arguments had severely damaged its popularity. Climate change legislation died in the Senate. Priorities like immigration reform, labor law reform, D.C. statehood, and more stimulus—which was still desperately needed—had fallen off the table.

In 2010, voters punished Democrats for their inaction and rewarded Republicans for their obstruction.

The result was unfortunate but unsurprising: Democrats lost big in 2010. The economy was improving but still terrible. In tempering their ambition, Democrats had failed to deliver quickly enough to convince voters to stick with them. President Obama described the 2010 midterms as a “shellacking” for himself and the Democrats—and indeed they were. The 2010 midterm defeat effectively killed President Obama’s legislative agenda for the rest of his presidency, well before McConnell took over in the Senate in 2015.

Our job now is to make sure Democrats don’t repeat the same mistakes they made then. The remainder of this chapter lays out four lessons to learn from.

Lessons from former congressional staffers

Lesson One: Expect the GOP to obstruct, delay, and engage in bad faith BS

What Democrats thought would happen

Democrats thought that if they negotiated with Republicans to pass their agenda, they could reach a deal and pass bipartisan legislation. They thought that compromising with Republicans would increase their chance of success and add legitimacy and permanence to their legislation. They believed by doing so, they would inoculate themselves against the charge that they had rammed their agenda through Congress.

What actually happened

Reaching compromise with Republicans turned out to be a sisyphean task. Democrats spent months going around in circles with Republicans which slowed down their legislative agenda. Democrats repeatedly sacrificed key priorities in the process without any Republican support to show for it. Despite these self-imposed delays by Democrats, Republicans still accused them of ramming through a radical agenda.

Congressional Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell in the Senate, used every tool available to delay and obstruct Obama’s agenda. Some of the common tactics they used included:

  • Delay: The GOP engaged in bad-faith negotiations for the sole purpose of delaying legislation;
  • Obstruction: The GOP used procedural tools to obstruct the process. McConnell was particularly adept at weaponizing the filibuster in the Senate;
  • Bogus arguments: The GOP spread misinformation about provisions in Democratic bills (e.g., “death panels!” and “the deficit!”), and manipulated the press into giving their claims legitimacy.

Recalling how Republicans engaged, Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it best:

The Republicans were very clever in what they did. They pretended that they were interested…It was all an illusion.

Lesson for today:

Republicans know that the only way that Democrats will succeed is if they move quickly, so Republicans will do everything they can to obstruct and delay. They will try to weaponize President Biden’s understandable desire for unity to tempt him into wasting time and political capital on negotiations that aren’t real. Mitch McConnell has called democracy reforms “socialism” and a “power grab,” and he’s pledged to be the “Grim Reaper” of all progressive legislation. Instead of foolishly looking for Republican votes that will never materialize, Democrats should focus on keeping their caucus together and passing bills with Democratic votes. This focus on caucus unity will be especially critical given the 50/50 split in the Senate, and the need for every single Democrat to vote with the party in order to accomplish anything on our agenda.

Lesson Two: Prepare to counter a far-right extremist backlash

What Democrats thought would happen

President Obama entered the White House with a landslide and what looked like a clear mandate for his agenda. What’s more, Obama had built a massive grassroots base of 13 million supporters through Obama for America (OFA), which he hoped to mobilize in support of his legislative agenda. With broad public support behind them, Democrats hoped they could move quickly through their legislative priorities without negative repercussions.

What actually happened

Democrats were unprepared for the grassroots, conservative backlash that grew as congressional debates stretched on. The Tea Party, which began to pick up steam in early 2009, was locally-focused, well organized, and hell-bent on stopping as much of the Obama agenda as possible. We saw it up close—in fact our experiences with the Tea Party served as inspiration for the original Indivisible Guide (minus their racism and violence). This reactionary grassroots force pressured Republicans to reject compromise with Democrats, and made it as politically painful as possible for Democrats to support Obama’s agenda. Meanwhile, the brilliant organizing effort by Obama for America that had built a Blue Wave in 2008 failed to translate into any sizable grassroots movement in support of Obama’s agenda in 2009.

The result was entirely predictable: The public narrative became one of one-sided, massive opposition to Obama and his legislative priorities. This was most evident in the August recess town halls of 2009 when Democrats nationwide were captured on video being yelled at by angry constituents who opposed “Obamacare,” without any grassroots support to counter their message.

Lesson for today:

The victory isn’t the election, it’s the legislation. To win on legislation, we have to stay engaged well after an electoral victory like the one we had in November 2020. This is harder than it sounds—the truth is that it’s just easier to mobilize people who are angry, and so we should expect more grassroots energy in opposition to the Biden agenda to increase, like we saw in 2009 with the rise of the Tea Party. But the hard truth is that we’ll need to brace for something far worse than the Tea Party, because armed white supremacists have been further emboldened and organized under Trumpism and have vowed to be ungovernable. These white supremacist forces will be a prominent feature of our political landscape in the months ahead. It will be our job, together, to build a political and organizing strategy that takes them into account, and wins anyway. Our side needs to disarm their political pressure at opposition with our own bigger and braver grassroots movement, and make sure Biden’s agenda isn’t blocked or severely weakened the way Obama’s was. That’s where Indivisibles come in.

Lesson Three: Expect congressional Democrats to get cold feet

What Democrats thought would happen

Worried that legislative overreach would cost them their majority in the next election, Democrats sought to moderate both in terms of the ambition of their bills and the strategies they undertook. They narrowed the scope and scale of their major agenda items, including their recovery package, health reform, Wall Street reform, and their climate bill. They took their time publicly debating their major bills, hoping to avoid accusations that they rammed their agenda through Congress. They put limits on how much they were willing to spend on their agenda, including a $1 trillion cap on the ACA. They thought that by doing so, they could enact enough of their campaign promises but spare themselves an electoral backlash in 2010.

What actually happened

Instead of passing bills that matched the scale of the problems they were trying to solve, Democrats chose to pass scaled down bills in hopes of maintaining a sheen of bipartisanship. They weakened their own legislation and self-imposed arbitrary caps on the price tag of their key agenda items. For example, they passed a stimulus package that was too small to pull our economy out of recession. They passed a health care bill whose most popular benefits were scheduled to phase in years later (because it kept the price tag lower).

At the end of the day, this political strategy failed. Republicans called them anti-American socialists all the way up to the 2010 midterms anyway. Democrats ultimately lost control of the House in 2010, and empowered obstructionist Republicans refused to move on Obama’s agenda for the remainder of his presidency.

Lesson for today: Expect Democrats to get cold feet.

Democrats will fear losing their majority and there will be calls—some from within the Democratic caucus—to weaken their own legislative agenda. This won’t guarantee that Democrats keep their majority, but it will guarantee that we fail to adequately address the crises our country faces. That’s why outside grassroots pressure will be crucial for stiffening their spines and holding the caucus together against bad faith calls to compromise.

Lesson Four: Go big, go fast, get it right

What Democrats thought would happen

With a popular mandate and Republicans ostensibly ready to work with them, Democrats believed that time was on their side and they didn’t need to rush to enact their agenda. Obama and congressional Democrats believed they could start with a smaller stimulus and come back to pass additional bills if they needed to. For the rest of their agenda, they thought they could take their time, have lengthy public debates, get buy-in from Republicans and the public, and move through the items on their legislative agenda one-by-one relatively easily.

What actually happened

President Obama and congressional Democrats wasted precious time debating and courting Republicans, and burned through much of their political capital in the process. They settled on a lower price tag for their economic recovery package in exchange for a few Republican votes, then quickly learned that Republicans and conservative Democrats had no appetite to give them more. The result was a bill that was too small to pull our economy out of the recession—and extended hardship for millions of American families.

On health care, Democrats also spent more than a year painfully debating what would eventually become the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Not only did the protracted debate in Congress fail to yield a single Republican vote in support, but the extended, public sausage-making process left the final product widely unpopular. By the summer of 2010, with the midterms just a few months away and Democrats already feeling the heat back at home from angry constituents, Obama’s agenda had stalled.

Lesson for today:

Democrats will have a small window to pass major legislation. We’ve spent the last two years in the House having the policy debates in preparation for this moment. Democrats must enter the 117th Congress with a sense of urgency and move quickly to pass bold solutions that match the severity of the crises we face. This is where we’ll need successful national Indivisible coordination to make sure our message (prioritizing bold structural democracy reform!) comes through loud and clear.

Categories: Politics

Abe Mazliach

I am passionate about Justice and Freedom for all people.


Ann Morrison · January 11, 2021 at 11:19 am

Great to have this analysis of what happened 13 years ago. It is a waste of time trying to bargain or debate with Republicans. It does not work. They are masters at delay and one of their principles seems to be NO compromise. The Democrats need to get their agenda thru Congress quickly.
So, what can I do? I wrote some postcards and countered a few FB comments this year. It all helps a little, but what is the best way to stay active especially for the next 100 days?

    Abe Mazliach · January 21, 2021 at 8:14 pm

    Hi Ann,

    Thanks for your comments on “Chapter 1: Making the most of a Democratic trifecta: Four lessons from 2009”. I think the best thing we can do is to continually write or call our U.S. Representatives and Senators to push them to be bold in enacting legislation important to us. As you said, we can’t expect Republicans to ever compromise.


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