Jonathan Chait’s article in The New Republic about why the Democrats can’t govern is a must-read.
Chait has much to say on why, despite having a Democrat in the White House and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the party leadership is in such disarray and is so resistant to coming together as a unified political force to support the agenda that Pres. Obama campaigned to such a successful outcome. But to my mind, this is the money point (emphasis mine):
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.
Chait also notes congressional Democrats’ reluctance to use procedural tools that are available to them — such as reconciliation:
… 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.
There is one tool available to break through the new supermajority requirement. That tool is called “reconciliation.” Reconciliation is an expedited process to vote on a budget, limiting debate to 20 hours and, more importantly, circumventing the filibuster. This means that one budget bill every year can be passed with just 51 votes. As the filibuster has grown routine, reconciliation has become a vital legislative tool. Many Democrats, alas, are far more squeamish than their GOP colleagues about deploying this tool.
Then he returns to the money point — “the role of the rich and business interests” (emphasis mine):
… 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.
Taken as a whole, then, the influence of business and the rich unites Republicans and splits Democrats. A few Republicans no doubt felt some qualms about supporting Bush’s regressive, extreme pro-business agenda, but their most influential donors and constituents pushed them in the direction of partisan unity. Those same forces encourage Democrats to defect. That’s why Ben Nelson is fighting student-loan reform, coal-and oil-state Democrats are insisting that cap-and-trade legislation be subject to a filibuster, and Democrats everywhere are fretting about reducing tax deductions for the highest-earning 1 percent of the population.
Chait’s piece has attracted differing reactions — even from people coming from similar political points of view. Down With Tyranny! thinks Chait’s critique of congressional Democrats is ill-intended:
Neither the New Republic nor Jonathan Chait is exactly a trusted source but in the former the latter addresses the interesting Republican-pushed question about why Democrats can’t govern. Chait, of course, blames Democrats, rather than Republicans, for failures suffered by Clinton, Carter and, he seems to hope, Obama. “The contours of failure,” he warns “are now clearly visible” and the fault lies with the congressional arm of the Democratic Party which “remains mired in fecklessness, parochialism, and privilege.” I bet Chait wishes they were just like Republicans and did exactly what they were told by Dear Leader, completely abandoning any pretense of being a separate but equal branch of government.
I think that’s a bizarre interpretation of what Chait wrote. I have no idea whether Chait votes Republican or Democrat, but the tone of his analysis did not strike me as being motivated by Republican sympathies — not even the tiniest bit. It’s not exactly breaking news that Democrats, no matter how much lip service they have given to a particular legislative agenda during a campaign, are absolutely awful at standing up for that agenda when the rubber hits the road. And it’s very frustrating, to say the least, for those of us who deeply believe in and support that legislative agenda. I took Chait’s comments in that light.
Matthew Yglesias, by contrast, agrees with what he takes to be Chait’s central point — that Democratic administrations don’t fail to achieve their goals so much as they “deliberately squander” the chance they’ve been given to achieve those goals. Matt adds that liberals need to reconsider the fond notion that self-identified “moderate” Democrats are playing possum to avoid political battles they feel they can’t win:
… people sometimes have a model in their head whereby the typical moderate congressional Democrat is a solid-gold progressive who really wants to do great things for America but feels constrained by politics. That’s probably true of some of them. But one really shouldn’t assume that it’s uniformly true. After all, a Senator who wants to do the right thing on, say, climate change but worries that a strong cap-and-trade bill would be a tough political sell in his state ought to be eager to see cap-and-trade done through reconciliation. That way you can vote “no” like you think you have to, without the “no” vote killing the bill. And that’s hardly the only example. There’s tons of below-the-radar procedural stuff that a legislator whose “real” views are further-left than he thinks he can get away with could be doing. And I don’t actually see a ton of Senate Democrats trying to push those envelopes. But that’s something to think about when you’re eying a particular legislator and wondering where he or she really stands.
Chris Bowers has a particularly egregious example of this:
Quite a few bloggers, myself included, have piled on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for siding with Evan Bayh’s “moderate working group” at the expense of the progressive wing of the party. However, he actually made a far more damaging statement about Democrats in general last Friday. It is a perfect example of why the Democratic Party is often perceived as a bunch of valueless, finger in the wind, pushovers (emphasis mine):
Reid has no qualms about the group, and said that “any public statements” Senate moderates have made have been helpful as the chamber takes up a budget next week that would cost more than $3 trillion. And he added: “Some people of course go to those meetings so they can issue a press release back home that’ll make them appear more moderate.”
This is just about the worst thing a Democrat can say. Hell, it is one of the worst things a politician can say. Here is a different way of phrasing that sentence: of course I don’t actually believe in the values of this group to which I belong-I just joined the group to trick the rubes back home into thinking that I believe in those values.
Alex Koppelman asks, “Will centrist Democrats kill Obama’s agenda?”
Tom Maguire is “intrigued” by Chait’s pandering to the business interests argument, but would also like to “point a finger at gerrymandering.”
DDay is of two minds: Checks and balances are good; on the other hand, “[T]he endless whining from Democratic ‘moderates’ to modify the Obama agenda, not out of any principle or belief that a middle course makes the most sense from a policy standpoint, but because they have been seduced by the high Broderist idea that the middle distance between two points is a virtuous end in itself, is both grating and irresponsible.”
Ezra Klein is not so sure that Republicans, when they had the majority, were as monolithic in their unity as Chait believes.
Karl at Patterico’s Pontifications asserts that they definitely were not, and adds that Chait is “ignorant of history“:
… The Bush tax cuts were passed on partisan votes, but the rest of his examples fall apart on examination. The first war resolution passed with broad bipartisan support. The Iraq war resolution passed the Senate by a vote of 77-23. The Medicare prescription drug program passed the Senate by a vote of 55-44, but 11 Democrats voted in favor and nine Republicans voted against it. The 2005 energy bill passed the Senate 74-26, with help from then-Sen. Barack Obama. The No Child Left Behind Act, on which Pres. Bush collaborated with the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy, passed the Senate 87-10. To the extent that partisan leverage was involved in the passage of these items, it was largely in terms of pressuring conservatives to expand the size and power of the national government.