Democratic Doldrums

Much has been made about the enthusiasm gap between the two major parties in the lead up to next year’s midterm Congressional elections. This presents a very real problem for the Obama administration as well as Congressional Democrats. It may also present problems for incumbent Democratic governors facing reelection, though I would argue that the more pressing danger for them is related to the general unpopularity of governors during fiscal downturns. No one likes state budget cuts, no matter how much they profess support for limited government.

The Democrats are in a bind of their own making. Sure, economic conditions are hurting all incumbents and will continue to do so. But there are other specific factors that are driving this malaise. Though Obama and the Democratic Congress each face apathy and discontent, their solutions are somewhat divergent. I explain below.

President Obama ran on a platform of hope and change. He committed himself to ushering in a new day in Washington, DC. Gone would be the stereotypical insideritis that plagues DC. This rhetoric is what attracted millions of people to his side. They were voting not just for a man, but for a movement. In creating such a movement-type campaign, Obama created certain expectations fueled by his supporters’ idealism.

However, what they have received has not been the type of government they expected. The president has had his share of successes, but unlike in his campaign where he tore up the rulebook, Obama has governed in a very traditional DC manner. The broad vision seems to be gone, and the politics of governing has been far too small-minded. The administration caved on the Stimulus, and we’re seeing the results of a too small package in intractable unemployment. They punted health care reform to Congress, and as a result we will likely see a very unambitious final bill. Contrary to campaign rhetoric, DADT is still on the books and there has been no effort to repeal DOMA. And the administration has offered no real leadership on cap and trade.

Now, supporters of the President will, and have, claimed that now is not the “right time” to push for all of these proposals. But that is letting DC conventional wisdom dictate administration policy and priorities. Obama was elected to change this small-mindedness.

Sure, the President has to work with a fairly dysfunctional Congress in which the opposition party has vowed to oppose everything and many members of the President’s own party exhibit the type of terminal political cowardice that can only grow in DC. But this does not absolve the President from his very real duty to lead. What the administration needs to do is take back the mantle of dynamic change.

This can happen in a couple of different ways. The President can propose his own plans for reform on health care or climate change, rather than give some broad parameters that the Congress will inevitably screw up. He can also make his case more forcefully to the American public. Take a page from the Gipper’s playbook, get the public to support you and put pressure on Congress to get their job done. It is clear from past experience that the most valuable asset to Team Obama is Barack himself. Perhaps his political team is afraid of spending what they perceive as limited political capital. Again, this is myopic DC thinking, fueled largely (I would guess) by Rahm Emanuel. The reality is that Obama earns more political capital the more he is in front of the American people.

In some ways, what I am suggesting is that Obama may be best served by distancing himself from Congress. And potentially running against them in 2012. Of course he cannot be too forceful in his criticisms of Congress now, as the future success of his administration depends on having Democrats in control of the House and Senate.

The Democrats in Congress face a potential reckoning in 2010. After retaking the reins in 2006, Democrats in Congress said that they needed stronger majorities in order to pass progressive legislation. They were given a supermajority in the Senate and increased their hold on the House in 2008. Yet, eleven months into Democratic dominance there is very little to show- a weak Stimulus bill, no cap and trade, no health care reform (yet), etc. It is no wonder that the Democratic base may stay home next year.

Unlike their counterparts in the GOP, Congressional Democrats have all the discipline of a toddler. Conservative Blue Dogs threaten to upend the will of the leadership, and of the people, on important issues like health care and cape and trade. Senate “centrists” derailed any hope of a large enough Stimulus package. Many Democrats in DC have the terminal political cowardice spoken of earlier.

The most galling part of terminal political cowardice is that it reflects Beltway conventional wisdom, as opposed to actual polling data. We have all read the nonsensical statements by Blanche Lincoln and Joe Lieberman for why they oppose a public option. The opinions of those at Georgetown cocktail parties or at the Washington Post carry more weight than the voters of Arkansas or Connecticut.

It is difficult to see a path for the Democrats in Congress to regain the enthusiasm of the base. Passage of health care reform will help, as will a rebounding economy (assuming that happens in the next 10 months), but there will still be a sizable portion of the base who simply will not ever trust their leaders again. The only place that I see real enthusiasm in the base is where an actual progressive is running. A sizable portion of the base simply feels that it is no longer their duty to elect Democrats.

But the enthusiasm gap affects not only the base, but all of those hundreds of thousands (millions?) of new or first time voters from 2008. They put their faith and hope in a new leader, who they believed would work with a Democratic Congress to address the big issues. And what they have gotten instead has been the same Washington style micro-politics. They were told that if they gave the Democrats the power in DC their lives would improve. And many of them now feel they were sold a false bill of goods. Who can blame them?

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12 thoughts on “Democratic Doldrums

  1. I was with you in the first half of the post but a couple of things. I’m not sure that the President’s capital increases the more he’s in front of people. His post-speech bounces aren’t so big anymore and part of why I think it grew with his appearances was that a year ago, he was a refreshing change of pace. Now, a speech from President Obama is the new normal, so more of the same lacks in freshness and for dems, it lacks in accomplishments to back it up. Republicans aren’t even listening so I don’t think it matters.

    Also, I’m not sure conventional progressive complaints about elected Democrats are significantly wiser than conventional beltway thinking. Sure Lincoln is a squishy Centrist, but she’s also from Arkansas, which isn’t a liberal state by any measure. So should we expect differently? Should we expect a Democrat from Louisiana to agree with and vote like a Democrat from Massachusetts? No, because as much as it doesn’t seem like it, the Democrat part of the label matters much less than the state.

    Lieberman is from a state that is also home to Aetna, the health insurance giant. He may make nonsensical statements but his reasoning isn’t exactly unfathomable. It’s the same reason S. Kerry uses when he opposes a tax on medical device manufacturers to pay for HCR.

    All of this is really a long-winded way of wondering where the complaints come from. Congress is where 300 million people in 50 states are represented. Their interests and preferences don’t neatly fall into a bipartisan rubric and no state volunteers painful cuts to its economy on general principle.

    Final two thoughts. First, I think, in general, Team Obama has learned the right lessons from Team Clinton but over-corrected to their detriment.

    Second, I think there’s a fine line between ideological enthusiasm and animus.

  2. I think that part of why Obama does not get the same bounce from his appearances is partly the reason you described, but also partly due to the public’s perception that he us not out there fighting. Even in his speeches, the tone is not what it once was. He was been far too content to let Congress have their way with his priorities.

    It would be silly to think that all members of a Party would vote the same way all the time. But it is not wrong to believe they ought to on significant pieces of their Party’s agenda. Or, at the very least, they ought not to undermine their Party in the form of supporting a filibuster. Lincoln, Landrieu, Nelson and the other squishies can vote no on the bill, that is their right to do so. One can make an argument that a no vote is actually not the right political move (and many have made that argument, so I won’t belabor it), but even accepting that it is, it is a lot more difficult to justify a filibuster.

    And for some reason, the “centrists” in the Senate seem to be hardwired for compromise. It would not seem to matter if leadership were to introduce the exact legislation they wanted, they’d still want to bargain some of it away (see, for example, the Stimulus). I wish that Reid and the rest of the leadership would realize this and propose accordingly. In other words, ask for the damn stars and maybe you’ll get the moon!

    With respect to LIEberman (yes, I wrote it that way intentionally), his rationale for opposing the public option has changed seven times already. And, as Steve Benen and others have noted, he has claimed to support it in previous campaigns. So I think you’re wrong in attributing it to Aetna. I think it really is part of his personal pique with the Democratic Party and Obama, as well. It’s sort of rich, given that Obama was one of the people who saved his seniority in the Senate.

    I would never claim that our nation’s preferences fall into a simple dichotomous choice. But I would like to see the Democrats have half the unity of the GOP caucus.

    • Well you know that I’d prefer to see non-partisan legislators and political coalitions formed around single issues as opposed to single, broad worldviews. We could focus on Maryland’s issues, Connecticut’s issues, etc… rather than on buying off Mary Landrieu because she has a D next to her name or, for many people, because their parents and grandparents were party members.

      I find it cliche when people say they don’t expect lockstep voting but on the major issues. It’s intuitive but wrong. Resolutions condemning violence get lockstep votes. The major issue votes are the ones that matter, of course you’re going to have more disagreement there than on the small things. Also, most of the time the person is using “major issues” synonymously with “issues of personal concern.” Which, I have two issues with. (In general, not with you specifically Justin)

      First, an issue of major concern for you or even a sizable chunk of your party may not be the same for others. So for example, if you voted for Landrieu or random Democrat because the alternative was a neocon war hawk and you opposed escalation, that doesn’t necessarily require agreement on healthcare or cap and trade. Weirdly enough using elected representatives as proxies for electoral mandates on specific issues is bad business.

      Second, a lot of the times these criticisms are coming from people that stand to lose next to nothing in an election when they’re asking somebody to vote (perhaps against their own views or constituents’) for something that will come at huge cost to someone else and that’s a.) bad politics and b.) no way to run a coalition.

      Progressives in solidly blue states sit back and call blue dog democrats cowards, now that’s rich. These are the Democrats who make the majority a majority, they stand to lose the most, and as often as not are treated as though their votes on issues they have little input on are deserved and need not be earned.

      To be honest, my ire here comes from witnessing the years of the same behavior launched at moderate Republicans who had the temerity not to join the war hawks/lynch mob and it pains me to see progressives turn around and mimic the conservative right.

      If it were me, I’d be a lot more sensitive to the sacrifices I’m asking (not demanding) of moderate and conservative Democrats. If I were a blue dog, more often than not treated thanklessly and contemptuously by my own party’s base, well that wouldn’t incline me to stick my neck out for people who’d blame me for not being progressive enough while sacrificing my house seat on the altar of health care reform.

      All that said, I completely agree with your point about President Obama’s deference to Congress/his strategy to push his priorities in Conference. He is and certainly was (months ago) the most popular politician in the United States, probably the world.

      Back in January, Reid had to walk back a statement he made about working with, not for the President. He should’ve been clear and focused and kept the Democrats in line. He didn’t and if I were to guess it’s because the WH didn’t trust it’s own party enough to move together Finding Nemo style and cynically hoped that “soft power” would be enough to get something. Then the President would have enough wiggle room to claim whatever bill passed as a triumph and avoid the “President defeated b/c X wasn’t in the bill” news cycle.

      Now, closer to midterms with declining approval numbers tied to war and recession, he just doesn’t have the clout. You’re right, the democrats do need to work together to survive but I’m not sure that leaving the middle of the road Dems out to dry is the best strategy to do that.

      • A couple of replies I’d like to make.

        * I think there is a huge difference between expecting lockstep votes FOR legislation and expecting Party members not to join with the opposition party in a filibuster (but, as I’ve said before, I loathe the filibuster). I also believe that there are some issues that are so central to each Party’s principles, that not only opposing them, but filibustering them ought to result in loss of Party support and maybe even chairs/ranking member privileges. And I feel this way about both parties. I think a Republican who had joined with the Democrats to filibuster the Bush tax cuts, for example, should have been punished. Just as tax cuts are central to the GOP identity, and have been part of its platform for decades, so too HCR for the Democrats. Just as there are advantages to being a member of a Party, there ought to be responsibilities that come, too, aside from casting your vote for the chamber’s leader.

        * In theory I agree with your second point. However, in practice, those types of arguments are often not based in fact. Many Blue Dogs are to the right of their districts, plain and simple. Further, many of the right of center Democrats elected over the past couple of cycles received significant support from the netroots and other left of center groups. And, insofar that their votes are needed in order to retain a majority, liberals and progressives do have a stake in the electoral outcomes for these Blue Dogs and “centrists.” (Most of my contributions over the past two cycles have been to right of center Dems- Webb, Ford, Gillibrand)

        * Some of what is taken for some sort of liberal orthodoxy is really just a desire for Democrats to grow a pair. Many people to my left would love to have more Jim Webbs, even if he is to their right, if for no other reason than the guy has some cojones.

        * I also think that respect is a two way street. Even assuming that the Blue Dogs and “centrists” don’t get the love they deserve from the base, do you really believe those conservative Democrats have been kind to the Party’s base? Not only do Bayh et al recycle Fox/GOP memes, but they go out of their way to Sister Souljah anyone to their left, when it suits their purpose.

        * Part of the political risk on HCR for Blue Dogs is of their own making. If they forcefully fought back against the GOP spin, rather than parroting it, they’d be in a much stronger position as we head into 2010. It’s not as if the GOP or its Axis of Beck, Limbaugh, Fox and Palin are going to go easy on the Democrats who broke ranks and either voted against HCR or voted to weaken or neuter the public option. And it literally drives me crazy when I hear Dems make that argument, that somehow if they don’t go full for reform they’ll be in a better position.

  3. I forgot to reply to the filibuster point you made, yes there is a literal difference. I’m not sure there’s a substantive one. The people who want you to pass legislation affirmatively aren’t going to trip over themselves in gratitude for your yes to cloture, no to passage votes. The people who oppose whatever measure is being filibustered are only going to see that you enabled a victory. So while I would agree that this shouldn’t be the case, it is, nonetheless.

    As for the central issues problem, then wouldn’t that mean the parties should adopt platform-based litmus tests for candidates? I’d support such a move if it would simply get rid of our current ad hoc basis for deciding what is and is not crucially important to party identity.

    At some point when I have time, I’ll look more at blue dogs and district identification.

    In the meantime, I’ll admit to being baffled by the Democratic view that their side lacks fortitude. I would imagine it has something to do with the Democratic penchant for grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory time and time again. However, what exactly is accomplished by political machismo? Sure Republicans are great at it but their so-called political effectiveness has been uniquely damaging to the country and their own party.

    The respect should be two ways I didn’t mean to imply otherwise, but I haven’t yet seen any indication from progressive pundits and websites that Blue Dogs are anything other than sellouts and obstacles. Even if that’s true and it very well may be, that’s not going to make working with them or getting their support any easier. Cathartic? Sure. Strategically sound? Probably not.

    • Just a quick response to your comments.

      * I disagree with you about filibuster versus voting on the bill. Outside of those of us who have some understanding of Senate rules (which is a very, very small number) the average voter has no clue about the filibuster. I cannot imagine any candidate for US Senate running against an incumbent for failing to filibuster a bill s/he actually voted against. The people on the Right who will be up in arms over HCR are not going to vote Democrat anyway.

      * I would not be opposed to a Party litmus test, in theory. However, as we saw a couple weeks ago with the one proposed for the GOP, in practice they are more troubling. Either they are too vague or too specific. If the intent is to maintain party cohesion around a core set of policies, then fine. I’d argue that is an objectively good thing.

      * Your point about the damage done to the GOP and the country is well-taken. But I am not sure that political machismo (or I would say cohesion and discipline) is inherently bad. Then again, I came of age in GOP politics and so my own tendency towards that type of politics probably colors my own views.

      * When you’re checking out the Blue Dogs, also look at how many of those elected in the past few cycles had heavy netroots support. I think you’ll be surprised.

      • In terms of the filibuster vs. bill, that same argument might have applied and then failed with John Kerry. Voting something out of committee is different from voting for it on the floor but that nuance is lost in an attack ad.

        Even if say Blanche Lincoln voted against the bill but for cloture, you could run an ad saying, “don’t want LincolnCare getting between you and your doctor.” or “Senator Lincoln could’ve stopped Obamacare and didn’t, don’t you want a Senator who will stand up for your concerns.”

        They would be completely misleading but then again, that’s par for the course in campaign attack ads. Not to mention cloture but a no vote might just as easily leave her open to a successful or damaging primary challenge.

        Which is to say, I think the political reality of our world is defined by bold quasi-fictional narratives, not the accurate nuance belied by Senate rules and procedure. Then again, I may be just be cyclically cynical about both the campaign process and voter savvy.

  4. Kerry sort of proves the point, though. He was the one who said that he voted for it before he voted against it. And people found that to be typical Beltway doublespeak. The same would happen with an attack ad that claimed a Senator supported a bill that s/he actually voted against.

    • The point I got from Kerry was that the public doesn’t do nuance, so for moderates, they support a filibuster, or more accurately don’t support a cloture vote HCR dies, their left flank cries foul but they live to fight another day. OR HCR passes and their left flank reelects them.

      Voting for cloture but not for final passage seems like the only guaranteed losing strategy, which is why I think you can basically treat the cloture vote and final passage as the same thing de facto, if not literally.

      I have to think about this some more but when you say a candidate wouldn’t run “against an incumbent for failing to filibuster a bill s/he actually voted against,” I think the candidate would just say they “didn’t stop Obamacare” or are “untrustworthy.” Therein lies my disagreement.

  5. I’m not sold on the for cloture/against bill as a political loser. If I were advising Lincoln et al, I’d spin it as I supported an up or down vote on the bill and that is part of democracy.

    I still think that the people with whom the “didn’t stop Obamacare” would register are not movable voters to begin with. And therein lies part of my issue with DC Dems- they fail to understand the playing field.

    • That’s fair, it’s entirely possible. It just seems to me that cloture/against move leaves you open to attack on both sides, rather than just one. So not a guaranteed loss, sure. However, it makes a win just that much harder. I mean would you vote for a democrat who voted for cloture but against HCR after watering it down, over a more progressive one in the primary?

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