Why you should care
Because unlike pie-in-the-sky promises, porcupine politics could actually work.
Nine days after the election, labor leaders and environmentalists held a rally in a park barely a football field’s distance from the U.S. Capitol, convinced that their fight was just beginning. And their leader, Bernie Sanders, agreed. “Please do not forget — Donald Trump goes into the White House having lost the popular vote by 2 million votes,” the junior senator from Vermont said, adding: “One of the reasons that he won is, in my view, a failure in the Democratic Party” — namely, an inability to speak to the working class — “that must be rectified.”
Rather than go quietly into the night, the white-haired septuagenarian continues to rage in defiance of the right — without sparing his caucus colleagues either. But now that Republicans control the presidency and a majority in both chambers of Congress, Sanders will face steep opposition to the agenda he hammered on throughout the campaign. How can Sanders continue to exert influence as a member of the opposition minority? The answer: He’ll need to bare his quills. “The key is to be a porcupine — have a reputation for being difficult,” Chris Matthews, then spokesman for House Speaker Tip O’Neill, told Hedrick Smith in Smith’s legendary book The Power Game: How Washington Works. “Most people are generally utilitarian: They try to achieve the greater happiness,” Matthews said. “So why spend your day being miserable?”
Sanders does possess one, ahem, “Trump card” in his battle for Senate relevancy: the similarity between his supporters and Trump’s.
It’s time for Sanders to get prickly. In fact, he may have started back in May, when he encouraged fellow liberals to reject bipartisan bills to address the Puerto Rican budget crisis (“legislation smacking of the worst form of colonialism”) and to rewrite the nation’s chemical-safety laws (“federal chemical regulations should be a floor, not a ceiling”). These contrarian positions spurred Politico to describe Sanders as “the next Dr. No.” Hedrick Smith noted in his 1988 best-seller, however, that the ability to say nay is an underrated power, and since comparisons to Ronald Reagan are en vogue today, it’s worth mentioning the porcupines who ruled during that era: Edmund Muskie, a Maine Democrat who would “smoke a god-awful cigar” and just be “difficult, cantankerous,” as Matthews put it, and Howard Metzenbaum, a liberal senator from Ohio who was known for attacking bills that gave tax breaks to special business interests — the “millionaihs and billionaihs” Bernie raves against.
These days the senator most likely to brandish quills is Ted Cruz, who in 2013 famously filibustered a government spending bill over his opposition to Obamacare and added a poison-pill amendment designed to kill comprehensive immigration reform. Similarly, Sanders could filibuster controversial appointments to the Supreme Court while adding bill-slaying amendments to measures like building the Trump wall or gutting the Affordable Care Act.
Another powerful pinprick at Sanders’ disposal: the “hold.” This legislative procedure lets any single senator delay a motion from reaching a floor vote and do so anonymously, although Sanders would likely make his holds public in order to rally his legions of followers as additional pressure points. The hold was originally established to give senators additional time to study bills that may affect their constituents. During the ’60s, it became a common tactic for pissing off foes and killing legislation since it takes a cloture vote of 60 senators to break. The risk: Will Democrats reward leftists like Sanders for their opposition the way Republicans rewarded conservatives this election? “Republican voters like the fact that the party holds these ideological bright lines regardless of circumstances,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist, “but Democrats are more group-based; they need to see wins and like to see progress.”
Boston University political scientist Thomas Whalen believes Democrats need to “make the populist argument” that Sanders continues to champion, but he has less faith in the Vermont senator’s ability to guide his own bills through the legislative labyrinth and into law. “He doesn’t have a soft touch where it matters,” Whalen says. What gives the porcupine strength — the sharpness of his opposition — makes it difficult to build coalitions. It’s a problem that dogs Sanders — except for a VA reform bill, his legislative record is scant — the way it did Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, who inspired a generation of Reagan Republicans, including current House Speaker Paul Ryan. “There was a lot of resentment toward Jack Kemp, because they thought he was a kind of showhorse; he didn’t possess the substance,” says Whalen. “Somebody like a Lyndon B. Johnson — he was a master of the Senate, he knew all the ins and outs. But those are rare.”
Still, Sanders does possess one, ahem, “Trump card” in his battle for Senate relevancy: the similarity between his supporters and Trump’s. Should Trump falter in his promise to revive manufacturing in the Midwest or end unfair trade deals, nobody will cut such an attractive opposition figure as Sanders. While the 75-year-old is likely too old to launch a serious run in the next election cycle, he could spend his golden years scuttling the president-elect. After all, Trump may have had his mega-rallies, but Sanders did too, and his loyalists are willing to write, call and generally pester lawmakers, even those on their side of the ideological spectrum, as they did by petitioning President Obama to move against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That energy could easily be turned against Trump. According to former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, who is a board member of the political organization Our Revolution and a Sanders supporter, “If Trump plans to usher in a new fleet of robber barons or implement his agenda in regards to Muslims and Mexico, people of color, we will make his life hell.”