Not a lot new in Jonathan Chait’s New Republic article about feckless Congressional Democrats, but he sums it up nicely.
At this early date, nobody can know whether or not Barack Obama will escape this fate. But the contours of failure are now clearly visible. In Obama’s case, as with his predecessors, the prospective culprit is the same: Democrats in Congress, and especially the Senate. At a time when the country desperately needs a coherent response to the array of challenges it faces, the congressional arm of the Democratic Party remains mired in fecklessness, parochialism, and privilege. Obama has made mistakes, as did his predecessors. Yet the constant recurrence of legislative squabbling and drift suggests a deeper problem than any characterological or tactical failures by these presidents: a congressional party that is congenitally unable to govern.
Indeed. Chait reminds us that while Obama won by 7 points, Bush actually lost the popular vote in 2000 but he and the Republican Congress governed as if they had a mandate.
Even at this early date, the contrast between Democrats under Obama and Republicans under Bush is stark. Republicans did not denounce Bush for squandering a budget surplus to benefit the rich, the way Democrats now assail Obama for big spending and deficits. And Republicans did not refuse to use the budget procedures available to them to break through the Senate’s inherent lethargy. Republicans, in other words, acted like a parliamentary party.
Part of the problem are Senate rules and the way the GOP has exploited them – when the Democrats didn’t.
Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute penned an article in AEI’s magazine titled "Our Broken Senate." Over the last three decades, the filibuster, once a rare weapon used to express unusually strong objections, has dramatically expanded and turned into a routine, 60-vote supermajority requirement. During the same time period, the Senate has developed a new, anonymous one-person filibuster called a "hold." The clubby traditions of the Senate have allowed these new practices to expand unchallenged. "The always individual-oriented Senate," writes Ornstein, "has become even more indulgent of the demands of each of its 100 egotists."
The Senate poses a particular obstacle to Democrats. Its structure gives greater voice to residents of low-population states, who tilt more Republican than the country as a whole. If you assume that every senator represents half the population of that state, then the Republican caucus represents less than 38 percent of the public. In electoral terms, we think of that as a tiny, even fringe minority. It’s less than the share of the electorate that voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964. But it supports enough senators to block the majority’s will.
Chait summarizes two problems the Democrats face.
One reason is that Democrats are trapped by their past. America’s two major parties have, historically, lacked much ideological cohesion. The GOP contained conservatives alongside progressives. The Democratic Party consisted of everything from Northern liberals to Southern reactionaries. The latter, in particular, held disproportionate sway in Congress. Having less in common with Democratic presidents than Republican ones, they carved out an independent role and guarded their prerogatives.
Since Democrats controlled the Congress almost continuously for more than 60 years beginning in 1933, the culture of Congress left a deeper imprint on their party. Republicans, shut out from the perks of majority status, finally decided under the opposition leadership of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s that their only path to power lay in partisan discipline.
Democrats, on the other hand, came of age under the old Democratic chieftains, and they have mostly aped that style. They do not fall in line, even under a Democratic president who mostly shares their goals. Shortly after Obama took office, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced, "I don’t work for him." Even House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, whose Harlem constituents danced in the streets after Obama’s election, sniffed of Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the rich, "I have to study it but I really don’t take presidents’ recommendations that seriously." Recommendation–that is the term that summarizes Congress’s attitude. A president can suggest whatever he likes, but Congress is the one making the decisions, and don’t you forget it.
A second factor encouraging Democrats to buck their presidents is the role of the rich and business interests. Unless you are a high school student reading this article in your civics course, in which case I’m sorry to dispel your illusions, you will not be stunned to learn that the affluent carry disproportionate political weight with elites in both parties. So, while people who earn more than $250,000 per year make up just a tiny slice of the electorate, they make up a huge chunk of any congressman’s friends, acquaintances, and fund-raisers.
What’s more, whatever their disposition toward business in general, Democrats feel it is not just a right but a duty to slavishly attend to the interests of their home-state businesses. That is why Kent Conrad upholds even the most absurd demands of agribusiness, or why even a good-government progressive like Michigan’s Carl Levin parrots the auto industry’s line on regulating carbon dioxide.
…Some moderate Democrats seem to suffer from a conflation of their own fund-raising strategies with responsible fiscal policy. The Wall Street Journal reported, of a group of Democratic Senate centrists, "Their stated goal is to rein in deficits and to protect business interests." In fact, this is not a goal but two often-conflicting goals, and neither is synonymous with "the national interest." This sort of behavior didn’t hurt Bush because his agenda largely was synonymous with business interests. But the Democratic agenda isn’t, and Democratic confusion of the two is poisonous.
..Taken as a whole, then, the influence of business and the rich unites Republicans and splits Democrats.
In the end, Obama and those who supported him, will suffer.
Democrats have locked themselves into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When their party controls all of Washington, things tend to go south quickly. The president’s popularity plunges, and soon his copartisans in Congress find themselves scrambling to keep from losing their own seats in the political undertow. It happened to Carter in 1978 and 1980, and again to Clinton in 1994.
And, so, they hedge their bets by carving out an independent identity. It doesn’t matter that Obama is popular now, or that a majority of Americans (according to a recent Pew poll) reject the criticism that he’s "trying to do too much." If Obama defies history and retains his popularity, they’ll retain their seats anyway. They have to worry about the scenario where Obama turns into an albatross.
But, of course, the more Democrats defect, the more the president is defined as an extreme liberal, and the more ineffectual he seems as his agenda crashes upon the shoals. Ultimately, the moderates find there is no escape. Republicans in Congress grasped the futility of beggar-thy-neighbor survivalism, and they stood behind Bush in 2005 and 2006, even as his popularity fell to Nixonian levels. The hard truth for Democrats is that Obama’s popularity is bound to fall. The economy will not turn around overnight, and the voters’ memory of disastrous GOP rule will grow dimmer and dimmer with time. The one factor within the Democrats’ control is whether their constituents see Obama as a s
trong leader taking action, like Roosevelt or Kennedy, or a floundering weakling, like Carter or first-term Clinton.
It seems impossible to believe that this party, with the challenges before the country so great and the opportunity to address them so rare, would once again follow the path to self-immolation. Yet, somehow, the Democrats can’t help themselves.
In the end, Democratic leaders suffer mostly from a lack of a spine. I’ve toyed with the idea of going to Nevada in 2010 to work for whomever runs against Harry Reid. If it takes his defeat to remove him from his leadership position, it may be, however heavy a price to pay, one well worth it.