Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now
Faced with countless challenges merely to restore some sensible equilibrium to US policy regarding say, long-term deficits or financial regulation, Obama faces the conundrum of a system that, as currently constructed, gives the minority party no strategic stake in sensible governance. The two parties are demonstrably different in this respect. Democrats, even in the minority, participate in solutions designed to improve governance. They cannot help themselves. A commitment to the principle of good governance is the primary reason most Democrats tend toward politics in the first place. One might argue that this faith in government's ability to improve people's lives is misplaced or that it becomes easily corrupted over time by the temptations of power and privilege, but few serious political observers would deny its initial presence. This is rarely true of Republicans, who are suspicious of government on principle and opposed to successful programs in practice. (If government succeeds, Republican ideology fails…)
Ironically, given the deeply contested manner in which George W. Bush ascended to the presidency in 2000 despite his second place finish in the popular vote and a transparent power grab on his behalf by the US Supreme Court, it is Obama's, not Bush's, legitimacy that has come under attack by mainstream Republicans. As the environmental reporter Dave Roberts describes it, "at the federal Congressional level, the Republican Party has become tight in its discipline, extreme in its ideology, and utterly unprincipled in its tactics." To be fair to the Democrats, they are a far more ideologically diverse party than the Republicans, and contain many moderates, many of whom, in past Congresses, would easily have been conservatives. To further complicate matters, the more conservative or "centrist" representatives are almost always the most vulnerable, since they do not represent reliably liberal districts (many were recently recruited by Rahm Emanuel for the purposes of winning in "purple" districts). As NPR's Ron Elving recently observed following the publication of yet another poll predicting catastrophe for the Democrats this November, "The House Democratic majority is, as always, a struggle between the 'sitting pretty' faction that's safe (this year as always) and the more fragile 'scaredy cat' faction that could be carried off by even the gentlest of anti-incumbent breezes." "The 'scaredy cats' are the Blue Dogs," adds New York Times pundit Charles M. Blow. As a result, the Democratic leadership in both houses is forever forced to compromise with its own side rather than its opposition. Now add to this the fact that, as Roberts rightly notes, "Congressional Republicans exercise far more party discipline, are far more extreme ideologically, and are far more willing to twist and abuse procedure than are Congressional Democrats." It's true, as pundits like to claim, that both sides "do it," but Republican conservatives do it better, more often and to far greater effect.
Again, to offer just one tiny for instance, when Democratic Congressman Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii announced his plans to leave Congress to run for governor, he picked as his date of departure February 28, just before the big make-'em-or-break-'em series of votes on healthcare reform. Barely a week later, Republican Congressman Nathan Deal of Georgia made the same announcement regarding his ambition to occupy his state's governor's chair, but his Republican colleagues prevailed upon him to stick around long enough to vote against healthcare. Meanwhile, and I wish I were making this up, Abercrombie's Democratic colleagues not only let him run away from the fight but even gave him going-away party. Too bad Abercrombie was already gone. (And in an almost too-fitting ending, the Democrats lost this bluest of blue seats—temporarily at least—in the May special election, owing to their inability to settle on a single candidate in time for the vote.)
Republicans never bothered to come up with an alternative healthcare proposal to Obama's; this was unnecessary. All they needed was the word "no." ("We're the party of 'Hell, no!'" cried Sarah Palin to a crowd of cheering Southern Republicans in mid-April.) Afterward, they make a speech about the need for the government to cut taxes and reduce spending. I swear I'm not kidding. When Senator DeMint introduced a GOP stimulus plan, authored by the Heritage Foundation, it consisted in its entirety of making the Bush tax cuts permanent and adding to them additional tax breaks for corporations and wealthy Americans. If enacted—never a serious possibility—it would have cost roughly three times what Obama's cost over the next ten years. Even DeMint found it necessary to admit that it was "not innovative or particularly clever. In fact, it's only eleven pages." Anyone who observes the current state of the Republican Party, whether at the elite or grassroots levels, will not find much clamoring for powerful public policy proposals. What the Congressional Republicans lack in seriousness, however, they make up in self-discipline, particularly when compared to the constantly divided (and frequently dispirited) Democrats.
Given this radicalization of their base, coupled with their ideological antipathy toward government solutions to societal problems, the current Republican leadership came to power with no interest whatever in bipartisan legislation. As DeMint famously promised, healthcare reform could be used to "break" the President. According to Republican-until-recently Arlen Specter—long before the White House had offered any details about the bill's content—before even "the ink was dry on the oath of office," the Republican caucus was plotting how to defeat Obama in 2012. Or as Representative Mike Conaway (R, Texas), a member of the Republican Steering Committee, put it, "I think, in the minority, you're not responsible for governing," and hence, "You can be a little purer in your ideology than when you're trying to get things done." This problem has only progressed during Obama's first year, as we shall see below.
Whatever the motivation, it is has become easier and easier for a determined minority to throw sand in the gears of the legislative process. America's system of political representation, now more than two centuries old, has grown ever more anachronistic. For instance, when the United States Senate was created, the most populous state had just twelve times more people than the one with the smallest population. Now it's seventy times; giving those in small and underpopulated states a massive political advantage over the rest of us. And it just so happens that the best-represented areas of America are also the most conservative. It is therefore no coincidence that the forty Republican senators with the ability to bottle up almost anything in the Senate represent barely a third of the US population.
This is just the beginning of the problems Americans face in terms of disproportionate representation. The average age of a US senator is 69, while the median age of Americans, according to the most recent census figures, is just over 35. Women are a majority of the US population but only 17 percent of the Senate. Only four senators are African-American, Hispanic or Native American, while these minorities represent a third of the population. Most senators are also millionaires; most Americans, needless to say, are not. Elderly white male millionaires therefore come to do quite well when it comes to legislation. Underrepresented groups, not so much…
The minority party has myriad means to bottle up legislation, and owing to a breakdown in comity among senators, no special interest is deemed too small or insignificant to monkey up the works. The most common tool of late has been the Republican threat to filibuster. Genuine filibusters of the kind Southern Democrats used to use to block civil rights legislation in the '40s and '50s are unnecessary today, as senators found them inconvenient, what with all the back-and-forth travel, fundraising opportunities and media appearances it would cost them. (The average senator spends about one percent of his time on the floor of the Senate, an infinitesimal fraction of what they devote to fundraising.) The ease of this particular tactic has increased exponentially as the Republicans grew ever more shameless in shutting down votes in which they are in the minority.