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How Democrats blew their chance to take down Betsy DeVos

How Democrats blew their chance to take down Betsy DeVos

Democrats blew what was arguably their best shot to take down one of President Donald Trump’s nominees when secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos won confirmation in the Senate on Tuesday.

DeVos was confirmed with all Democrats and two Republicans voting against her and Vice President Mike Pence casting a historic tie-breaking vote.

Democrats were spinning it as a win, but it’s hard to read DeVos’ confirmation as anything other than a fumble for Democratic lawmakers and grassroots groups, who were given a near-perfect set of circumstances to derail her nomination and still fell short.

DeVos had such a rocky hearing — she suggested guns have a place in schools to combat grizzlies and clearly lacked an understanding of basic education policy — that those segments went viral.

She faced widespread grassroots opposition that brought protesters to the streets and jammed up phone lines for senators from Maine to Oregon.

All that combined effort prompted two Republicans to oppose her nomination, but in the end it wasn’t enough to sway a third, showing that while Democrats were able to muster enthusiasm, they weren’t able to sufficiently pressure flippable senators in purple states with significant teachers’ union populations.

Instead of organizing protests laser-focused on vulnerable Republicans up in 2018, like Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada, or those in swing states with lots of union employees, like Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, progressive groups opposed to DeVos issued blanket directives to constituents to bombard their home-state senators with calls, even if they were Democrats and already out in opposition to begin with.

DeVos opponents turned out in some of their home states — Toomey saw protests drawing hundreds in Philadelphia over the weekend, for instance — but as senators returned to the Hill this week, the hallways outside their offices were notably silent.

Democrats, meanwhile, made a lot of noise, pledging to vigorously oppose her nomination at a protest outside Capitol Hill Monday night and holding the Senate floor with an all-night talk-a-thon. But Tuesday at noon, the vote still came.

Even some Democrats acknowledged the effort was mostly for show. Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy spoke on the Senate floor at 4 a.m. but admitted the night before that the vote was unlikely to go his way. “I can only do what I can do. Ultimately Republicans make up their minds on their own.”

Asked what he hoped to accomplish with a floor speech at 4 a.m., Murphy said the stunt was meant to show resistance.

“I don’t know that a lot of people are gonna be watching me at 4 in the morning, but we need to show people that we are not giving in to this effort to sell off our entire government to the highest bidder,” he said.

DeVos’ win was a stark illustration of the limits inherent in being part of the minority. Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware who spoke at the anti-DeVos rally Monday night, said there was only so much they could do.

We don’t have [the] votes in the Senate. We will be able to stop legislation with the filibuster. We will not be able to stop any other Cabinet nominees” without Republican support, he acknowledged.

And Republicans are expected to win confirmation on at least three more of their nominees this week — Jeff Sessions for attorney general, Rep. Tom Price for director of Health and Human Services, and Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary. But Democrats have set their sights on at least one more opportunity to derail a Cabinet nominee: Andy Puzder, Trump’s pick for secretary of labor.

Puzder’s hearing has been delayed four times as officials say he hasn’t yet completed his committee questionnaire, and he faced a damaging news cycle Monday when he admitted to hiring an undocumented worker as a maid.

And sensing they may have dropped the ball with DeVos, on Monday night some Democratic activists were already recalibrating. Neera Tanden, president of the progressive think tank the Center for American Progress, said Democrats need to “be focused on vulnerable senators in the future — earlier — senators who are up in 2018.”

“Nevada is a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. That’s a state that we can organize earlier and that’s what we should be going forward and — it’s outrageous that Sen. Heller is choosing to put his partisan interests ahead of parents in Nevada,” she said.

Tanden warned that parents won’t forget in November: ”Not next month, not next year. But in 2018.”

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