Public education supporters relentlessly made phone calls and wrote letters to Senators to complain about Betsy DeVos. Despite that the entire Democratic Senate Caucus held an all-night session enumerating problems with the Education Secretary nominee—her ignorance, her ideology of privatization, her entangled finances and potential conflicts of interest, DeVos has now been confirmed and sworn in. Her confirmation was always pretty much a sure thing, because today Republicans have more seats in the Senate and because Cabinet nominee confirmations cannot be filibustered.
But commentators have been noting significant accomplishments from the DeVos confirmation process. Here are three examples.
Dana Milbank, opinion writer for the Washington Post, explains that we should all be encouraged by the kind of incompetence Betsy DeVos demonstrated through her confirmation hearing: “Republicans, apparently recognizing the billionaire’s lack of familiarity with the rudiments of education policy, tried to shield DeVos from public view. They scheduled her testimony in the evening and limited questions. But this did not save the heiress from getting schooled… DeVos was ‘confused’ by questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and befuddled when asked about the raging debate about measuring student proficiency and growth.”
Milbank believes that the DeVos confirmation hearing exposed an unusual level of ignorance among appointments by the Trump White House, and that Democrats can someday use such cluelessness to their own advantage: “Democrats in the long run may thank the majority Republicans for confirming DeVos. In the fight against President Trump’s agenda, the new administration’s incompetence is their friend. Trump’s choice of DeVos signals a dangerous desire to dismantle public schools. It would be more dangerous if he chose somebody who was up to the task.”
Writing for POLITICO, Kimberly Hefling speculates that the massive outcry against DeVos exposed the nominee’s ignorance and her anti-public education bias, and irreparably damaged her credibility and capacity to function effectively as Education Secretary: “(T)he political bruising she’s taken on Capitol Hill could hamper her ability to govern and build support for President Donald Trump’s sweeping $20 billion school choice plan. The tens of thousands of calls and emails to derail her confirmation all but guarantee that she… (will) begin her tenure as education secretary as a polarizing figure without the usual honeymoon period to get her bearings—or to repair fraught relationships with school groups and Capitol Hill.” Hefling explains that neither DeVos “nor the Trump administration has yet to spell out their educational plan. Even with Trump’s promise to increase funding for charter schools, it’s unclear how that would be funded or carried out—although making changes to the tax code to encourage expansion is one possibility. Less still is known about the administration’s plans for higher education, as lawmakers begin work this year on a rewrite of the law that governs federal student loans, which could include an overhaul of accreditation and loan policies.” Hefling adds, “(T)he education secretary—more than many Cabinet officials—touches the lives of millions of Americans and even Republicans would be likely to push back against plans that they regarded as harmful to local schools or unpopular with their constituents.”
Jim Newell at Slate reveals what many of us suspected: “Was DeVos’ nomination ever truly threatened over the past week after Collins and Murkowski took to the Senate floor? Or was this coordinated all along by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: freeing Murkowski and Collins to vote the way they wanted, and then shutting the door? McConnell’s relaxed body language—and mere presence—on the Senate floor during DeVos’ vote suggested the latter. If there had to be any last-minute arm-twisting with, say, a senator representing a large state concerned about rural public school funding, McConnell would have been off the floor, or in the cloak room, performing said arm-twisting… The vote went all according to script.”
So… was there any point in all the rallies, letters, and phone calls? Yes, says Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, according to Newell’s report: “‘I thought we had some chance,’ Schumer said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. ‘We realized even if we didn’t, to make the point that Secretary DeVos is so anti-public education was an important point to make.’ Schumer’s argument is that the great drama surrounding DeVos’s nomination, and the spectacle of the vice president having to cast the tie-breaking vote on a Cabinet appointee for the first time in history, effectively serves to put DeVos on notice. ‘Once we set the table—that Secretary nominee DeVos is against public education—it will serve to put a magnifying glass on her when she makes a decision,’ he said. ‘So that’s important, too.'”
Newell continues: “(T)here’s a reason to fight President Trump’s nominations even if they can’t be derailed. More dissent means more critical stories in the press, means sharper-elbowed hearings, means defensive guarantees made to mollify wobbly senators, means a brighter spotlight on the secretaries once they’re in office. The resistance to Trump is in part about boxing in the people charged with enacting his will. The less latitude the Cabinet can enjoy, the weaker the Trump administration is.”