Ira Shapiro, photo by Jeremy Rusnock

Biography — Ira Shapiro

Q: You were not an academic or a journalist. What prompted you to start writing books?

A: I started out on the road to academia, as a graduate student in political science. And I considered being a journalist. But ultimately, I realized that I wanted to be in government and politics. That brought me to Washington, D.C., exactly one day after graduating from Brandeis, for an internship with Jacob Javits, one of the Senate giants.  That summer of 1969, Richard Nixon’s first year as president, hooked me on the Senate, and shaped my life course. More than forty years later, troubled by the Senate’s long decline, I wrote The Last Great Senate, describing the Senate at the peak of its power---the Senate in which I was privileged to serve as a staffer for twelve years.


Q:  You worked in the Senate for twelve years; worked with the Senate when you were in the Clinton administration; and then wrote three books about it in a decade. Don’t your ever get tired of it?

A:  I’ve probably spent more time thinking about the Senate than any reasonable person should. But it turns out that the Senate is vitally important. It is the balance wheel in our system, what Walter Mondale described as “the nation’s mediator”: Howard Baker called the country’s “board of directors.” It was at one time the place where the parties would come together to hammer out principled compromises on the most challenging issues which could command broad support. That’s how it worked in the 1960s and 1970s, and that way of operating continued in the 1980s. But the Senate has been in decline for thirty years, and since 2009, that decline has turned into an accelerating downward spiral. The Senate is the institution that has failed us the longest and the worst, and when the Senate fails, the whole national government fails.


Q:  What are the causes for the failure?

A:  We all know some of the important factors. Over the past forty years, the two parties grew much further apart, as they aligned by region, race and ideology. There once were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans; now there are few if any remaining. Our political culture became much coarser, driven first by the shrill 24/7 cable media, an extraordinary increase in costs of campaigns, and a five- fold growth in lobbyists. But as our politics grew more tribal, the Senate should have been the place where one hundred men and women countered the centrigual forces that were pulling us apart. Instead, the Senate not only reflected the polarization; it exacerbated it, by demonstrating it constantly at the highest and most visible level of government.


Q:  So you don’t think our current political crisis was inevitable?

A:  There is a natural tendency to assess our politics in terms of Donald Trump’s impact. But in retrospect, I think we will see that the two people who shaped our politics were Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell. Gingrich transformed politics into war, and McConnell elevated obstruction to new heights and constantly shredded the customs and norms that made the Senate work in its better days. Our government and our politics were in a terrible condition before Trump came down the golden escalator in 2015.


Q:  Your book focuses of Senator McConnell. Can you summarize your assessment of him?

A:  McConnell is a superb political strategist and tactician, as well as one of the toughest negotiators imaginable. He has demonstrated his unmatched political skill by surfing the madness that has consumed the Republican Party over the past thirty years, particularly since the election of Barack Obama. McConnell has been extremely effective in pursuit of his objectives: maximizing his power and that the power of the Republican Party.  Unfortunately, he has done great damage to the Senate, the Supreme Court, the presidency and the country. I have tried to give him full credit for everything he has done for America, but it didn’t take very many pages.


Q:  Isn’t Senator McConnell just a very effective partisan? Would another Republican leader have been any different?

A:  I had the opportunity to work with Senator Howard Baker when he was Republican leader, and then wrote about him in my first two books. Baker was, hands down, the greatest Republican leader, and in my view, one of the three great Senate leaders (the others being Mike Mansfield and Robert Byrd). In another difficult era, Baker vigorously opposed President Jimmy Carter on some important issues, while working with him on many others. Baker supported Carter on the fiercely controversial Panama Canal treaties, even though it doomed his hopes to be the Republican nominee for president in 1980. Baker tempered his partisanship to pursue the national interest; he understood the special role of a Senate leader to work with the president of either party, and to bring senators together across the aisle. McConnell has never done that, which is why I called his “the most destructive Senate leader” as far back as 2014.


Q:  You are also critical of other Senate Republicans. Weren’t they simply cowed by Trump’s hold on the Republican voters?

A:  I open the book with a quote from Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican, who spoke out against President Trump during the early months of his presidency. “Under our Constitution, there are simply not that many people who are in a position to do something about an Executive branch in chaos. Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively all but saying “Somebody should do something,” without seeming to realize that someone is us.”

And that is really the essence of it. The Republican senators had the stature, the independence, and the responsibility to protect the country from Trump, and they failed catastrophically---particularly in this crisis year of 2020. They essentially stood by and allowed an unhinged president to spew misinformation about Covid; declare war on the governors who were on the front lines battling the virus; mock masking and social distancing; and invite supporters to indoor rallies that became “super-spreader” events. The Senate Republicans also ignored the public evidence that Trump was determined to stay in office even if he lost the election. They allowed Trump’s “big lie” that the election was rigged to fester for two months after it was clear that Joe Biden had won, allowing fifty million people (seventy percent of Trump’s 74 million voters) to believe that they were cheated.


Q:  The Senate recently confirmed Judge Ketanji Jackson to the Supreme Court by a narrow margin, along with partisan lines, after bitter confirmation hearings. What was your reaction?

A:  It is a great example of how McConnell and a few other Senate Republicans always choose division and acrimony, rather than bringing the Senate and the country together. Judge Jackson was superbly qualified, and the nomination of the first black woman to the Supreme Court could have been a wonderful, unifying moment. It was reported that McConnell even considered not fighting the nomination, since it wasn’t going to affect the ideological balance on the Court. But as usual his worst instincts prevailed. Lindsey Graham, his loquacious wingman, also succumbed his worst instincts, ranting about Judge Jackson a year after having voted to confirm her for the Court of Appeals.


Q:  Your laser focus on McConnell and his caucus could be criticized for ignoring the impact that Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema had in scuttling key parts of President Biden’s agenda. Aren’t the problems of the Senate caused by both parties?

A:  Like most Democrats, I wish that Senators Manchin and Sinema had backed the Build Back Better (BBB) . But in reality, Biden’s ambitious agenda collided with the reality of a 50-50 Senate. It is very difficult to hold every Democrat together; during the Trump presidency, McConnell could not get every Republican vote (although he had a little margin to work with). But of course, Manchin and Sinema would not have the decisive votes if any Senate Republicans had been willing to break ranks on BBB. Most often, it is Republican obstructionism that prevents action on legislation that addresses the needs of the country.


Q:  Since Biden’s election, the debate over the filibuster has intensified. Many Senate Democrats who have endorsed maintaining the legislative filibuster in the past have now witched their position. What’s your view?

A: I know several great experts on Senate rules and parliamentary procedure, and I’ve never considered myself to be in that group. But, of course, it’s impossible to write about the Senate without giving the filibuster question a good deal of thought. The historical case for a Senate that operates by majority vote is very strong; Hamilton and Madison addressed the issue quite clearly. That is the way the Senate operated, until senators started abusing the right to “unlimited” debate, necessitating the Senate, on the eve of World War I, to establish “cloture,” by which debate could be ended by a two-thirds vote. Since that time, the Senate has several times responded to abuses of the filibuster by reducing the super-majority requirement for cloture to 60 votes, or creating exceptions such as the Budget reconciliation act, which worked by majority vote.

America has a unique political system; we are a non-parliamentary democracy. The barriers to legislative action in our system are high; super-majority requirements in the Senate make our challenging system even more difficult. I once wrote that Robert Byrd, the keeper of the Senate flame and its greatest defender, lived in the fear of the paralyzed Senate. Having watched McConnell for the past thirteen years, that is my overriding concern. I think the interests of the majority party, the minority party and the individual senators can be protected in a system which ensures extended (but not unlimited) debate, and a decision by majority rule.


Q:  For someone who reveres the Senate, you don’t seem to be a fan of its rules and traditions.

A:  Gary Hart once described the Senate as a “kind of controlled madhouse.” Anyone who ever served there always knew that they were operating on a narrow ledge, between paralysis and chaos. Even the best leaders required great skill and awesome patience to get anything done. Legislating for a contentious, diverse country of 330 million will always be difficult, but it should not be impossible. The Senate rules have not been seriously reviewed since 1979. Do we really believe that one senator should be able to block legislation or nominations for indefinite amounts of time? Is the country served by a Senate that spends its time debating “non-germane,” that is irrelevant, amendments? Ten yeas ago, I answered those questions by saying: “This is madness,” and the last decade has sadly confirmed that. The Senate should give itself the chance to do better.


Q:  So are the rules the Senate’s principal problem?

A:  No. The principal problem is senators who don’t act like senators; a Senate leader who shreds the customs and norms of the Senate; and a Senate which is devoid of the trust, mutual respect and bipartisanship that made it work in its best era. I’m struck by how much the senators hate the Senate in which they serve; they can’t stop talking about how broken it is. They should spend less time complaining, and more time making it work. As my earlier books showed, this is not a new problem. But Covid brought it home more powerfully. Millions of Americans risking their lives on the front lines to keep our health care system, the food supply, and the economy going, while a hundred senators, whose hold positions that are the greatest privilege a Republic can provide, failed the nation. I confess to being unduly optimistic; I thought if the threat to America was severe enough, the Senate Republicans would step up to their responsibility. And I was wrong.


Q:  Your book is a strong indictment, but it’s a depressing tale. Any grounds for optimism?’

A:  The book is recent history, with has continuing relevance. McConnell has been very successful, he will not change his approach, and he maintains control over his caucus. But the Senate map is favorable to the Democrats in this election year. The Republicans must defend 20 seats (the Democrats only 14), and they have five retirements, creating open seats in the key states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. The 2022 Senate elections should be viewed as a referendum to extend or end McConnell’s destructive reign. Gaining two to four seats would dramatically reduce his power and provide a great boost to the Democratic agenda.