A Democratic House: Why It Matters
So what might actually get done? It won't be a revolution. Over the past two years, with Republicans holding a slim majority in Congress, Democrats have been able to enlist a handful of moderate Republicans and stop much of anything from happening. Republicans could try to do the same, by enlisting New Dems and Blue Dogs, but progressive Democrats say they would have a harder time. "Sure, they can limit how far we go," Representative Jan Schakowsky noted. "But this country has moved. The entire caucus knows we have to produce. And the entire Democratic caucus embraces solutions that are more progressive than two or four years ago."
Bonior is more cautious but still optimistic. "Look, let's not get euphoric," he says. "This isn't going to be another Great Society or a New Deal. That's not what the political climate allows. With a small margin, there are real limits to what we can do, but we can make progress--particularly on our core agenda, on education and healthcare." That, legislators believe, would include adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, passing a real Patients' Bill of Rights, bolstering Social Security, funding universal preschool and providing tax credits for college and more money for teachers and smaller classrooms.
"I don't think there are more than a half-dozen Democrats who won't support that agenda," says Bonior. And, he says, moderate Republicans will vote for these reforms.
In addition, there's a slew of legislation that wins majority support now but gets bottled up. Says Conyers, "We've got a majority for hate-crimes legislation, for [laws against] racial profiling, for a police integrity act and for privacy legislation right now. We just can't get a vote on them."
The Gore candidacy is also boosting liberal hopes. While many outside Congress scorn what they regard as the faux populism of the Gore campaign, progressive Democrats feel buoyed by Gore's rhetoric and strategy. "Look, he's running on our issues--healthcare, education, taking on the big companies," says Peter DeFazio, chairman of the Progressive Caucus. "You don't hear him touting Blue Dog and New Democrat stuff--free trade, capital gains tax cuts, privatizing Social Security, vouchers, whatever. Instead, he's taking on pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, HMOs, big oil. You can't then turn around and govern in a different way."
When challenged that Clinton ran one way and governed another in 1992, DeFazio says Gore's rhetorical shift reflects a shift in public opinion and therefore has real consequences. "The New Democrats can no longer claim that they have the key to victory," he says. "Gore had to abandon their agenda and strategy to kick-start his campaign. Now it's progressive ideas, populist language and a willingness to fight for people that count. That means a lot." Miller agrees. "Look, Gore moved because that's what the voters demanded.... We are a reactive body. The country has moved beyond the debate going on in the Congress. The Gore campaign had to recognize that."
Barney Frank also thinks the New Dems have lost significant ground. "Their ideas have been repudiated--privatization of Social Security, vouchers in Medicare, anti-affirmative action." Gore turned from all of them; Lieberman dutifully shed his New Dem garb when he joined the ticket. And Blue Dogs--the largely Southern fiscal conservatives--are easier to deal with in an age of surpluses. "They care about education and healthcare too," says Schakowsky.
Jim Moran, leader of the New Dems in Congress, argues that their ideas--like targeted tax cuts and school choice--are still central to the debate. But he agrees with Schakowsky that the caucus is unified. He says that if the Democrats win the majority, there won't be a leadership struggle other than the already fierce face-off between Steny Hoyer, representing the conservatives and the old guard of the party, and Nancy Pelosi, representing liberals and women, for what would be Democratic whip. And there's virtual unity on the core agenda (to which Moran adds modest gun control and long-term healthcare).
The party's leaders are particularly anxious to avoid the mistakes that brought them down in 1994. "Look, after forty years in office, there was a certain arrogance there," says Bonior. "I think we learned from that." Says Schakowsky, "It used to be that the committee chairs were barons unto themselves. Now there is more coordination." Over the past year, Gephardt has convened an informal leadership group of thirty-five, including representatives from all sectors of the party, that meets at the end of most days. In the old days, Bonior says, "caucus meetings were rare, and viewed as trouble. Now the caucus meets regularly, and we've learned to work with one another."
But this consensus approach also poses a real constraint on liberal ambitions. "Clinton has brought us all along to understand the benefits of debt reduction and being restrained with these surpluses," Bonior says. Moran says, "We're agreed on paying down the debt." But within the limits of the Gore debt-elimination pledge, there's no money for anything except a very modest prescription drug benefit, a little education funding and whatever gets wasted on the military. Questioned about that, Bonior murmurs, "Well, we'll have to deal with that over time."
Clinton first used debt reduction as a tactic to avoid Republican tax cuts--"Save Social Security First." Now, debt elimination has been elevated to a national goal, and Gore is pledging to veto any use of the Medicare or Social Security surplus other than for debt reduction through the so-called lockbox. And in a Democratic Congress, Blue Dogs will join with GOP conservatives to oppose big new spending initiatives. That could rule out any serious social program--on healthcare, children, education, housing, the environment--that requires real investment, even at a time of "surpluses as far as the eye can see."