Commentary

How four songs about time explain our current politics and what’s at stake | Fletcher McClellan

Much of our politics and government is framed, even forced by time, whether it is a legal or self-imposed deadline

October 5, 2021 6:30 am

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Time Has Come Today – The Chambers Brothers (1967)

Timing is everything in politics, as it is in life.

Fletcher McClellan (Capital-Star file)

When he was asked last week at what time the American people should expect passage of his multi-trillion dollar infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills, President Joe Biden said, “It doesn’t matter when – it doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days, or six weeks – we’re going to get it done.”

Actually, when matters a lot.

Much of our politics and government is framed, even forced by time, whether it is a legal or self-imposed deadline.

What’s more, political actions and decisions often involve efforts to extend or compress time.

For example, the filibuster in the U.S. Senate attempts to make time stand still, preventing the chamber from taking votes on legislation. Right now, Republicans are blocking consideration of such items as voting rights, immigration reform, the minimum wage, and raising the debt ceiling.

From the moment they took power in January, Senate Democrats have debated whether to kill the filibuster, which would open the floodgates for their legislative agenda but also do the same for the GOP next time they become the majority party.

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There are both constitutional and political time constraints on President Biden’s legislative program. Midway through a presidential term, Congressional elections are held. For nearly a century, the president’s party almost always loses seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and nearly as often in U.S. Senate races.

Moreover, three of the last four presidents held party majorities in both houses of Congress in their first two years in office, only to lose control of at least one chamber after the first midterm.

Assuming this phenomenon continues in 2022, Biden and the Democrats are under tremendous pressure to pass as many of their initiatives as possible this year.

Furthermore, individual items contain their own timelines. If Congressional Democrats want to have any chance in influencing the legislative redistricting process prior to the midterm elections, they need to pass gerrymandering reform now. Similarly, enactment of the infrastructure bill must be expedited, in order for constituents to see such benefits as universal high-speed Internet.

“Closing Time” – Semisonic (1998)

Accidents of time or unexpected events can profoundly change the direction of government.

The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg a year ago gave President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) barely enough time to appoint and confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court before the 2020 general elections. As a result, conservatives on the high Court have a clear majority, and seem poised to make major changes in judicial policy over the next few years.

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Of course, what put judicial conservatives in the driver’s seat was McConnell’s successful effort in 2016 to stop the clock on former President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge (now U.S. Attorney General) Merrick Garland to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. After his election victory, Trump was able to fill the vacancy with Neil Gorsuch, whom observers predict will join the radical conservative wing of the Court.

If Garland had been confirmed, judicial progressives would likely have obtained their first Supreme Court majority since the Warren Court of the 1960s.

Instead, Democrats fear that, like Ginsberg, 83 year-old Justice Stephen Breyer of the current Court may overestimate his staying power and deny Biden a chance to name his successor.

One untimely death in Senate Democrat ranks over the next year would put McConnell and the GOP in charge of approving judicial nominations once again.

“If I Could Turn Back Time” – Cher (1989)

Another witness to the vicissitudes of time is President Trump.

Pandemics appear in the U.S. periodically, going back to settler times and the deadly Spanish flu of 1918. Since then, Americans have suffered outbreaks of polio, diphtheria, H1N1 flu, HIV/AIDS, and many more.

It was Trump’s misfortune to encounter the COVID-19 pandemic as he entered his fourth year in office. Presiding over a strong economy, Trump was in good position to win re-election until the coronavirus emerged from China.

Trump hoped that COVID-19’s effects on public health would not be severe and that its spread would be short-lived. He was wrong on both counts.

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His administration poured billions into research efforts to develop a COVID vaccine. The crash effort succeeded in producing the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. However, distribution of those drugs, as well as the vaccine developed by Pfizer, did not begin until December 2020, one month after the election.

Biden is in a similar position, wishing for COVID-19 to disappear before the 2022 elections. He has taken stronger action than did Trump to promote vaccinations, masking, and social distancing, but the virus and its deadly variants have proved resistant to presidential leadership.

“Time Is On My Side” – The Rolling Stones (1964)

With infrastructure, reconciliation, debt ceiling, and government funding bills all coming due now, as well as new emergencies like hurricane damage relief, political time seems to have converged.

It feels like a turning point has arrived but, Biden’s optimism notwithstanding, only in hindsight will we know whose side time was on.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.

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