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The Democrats' Dilemma | The Nation

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The Democrats' Dilemma

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At every turn, on issues ranging from warmaking to free trade to civil liberties to economic policy-making in a time of recession, the complaint was the same: Party leaders and key committee chairs seemed to allow Republicans to shape the agenda to such an extent that it was often "bipartisan" in name only. Even where there have been genuine compromises--as when the House Judiciary Committee eliminated the worst excesses of Attorney General John Ashcroft's domestic investigation and detention proposals--there is an awareness that the impetus has come less from Democratic leaders than from well-placed senior members like Congressman John Conyers. And for every "bipartisan" compromise that actually reflected Democratic contributions, there was a story like the one of Daschle intervening to undermine moves by Senate Judiciary Committee members to temper Ashcroft's proposals.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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"There are people on our side who are really unhappy with the leadership," says Representative Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who has worked closely with Gephardt. "There is discomfort with the way in which the Republican leadership has rushed in to help corporations instead of workers, but there is also unease with Democrats who have acquiesced to the Republicans."

Schakowsky put that unease into words: "Why are Democrats the ones who are saying, 'Maybe this isn't our time?' Why are Democrats the ones saying, 'We have to be restrained?'" She adds, "Even Bush is acknowledging the need to extend unemployment benefits. I don't understand our reluctance to stand up for working Americans."

For some Democrats in Washington, the answer is clear enough: Daschle and Gephardt seem to have frozen in the face of their greatest challenge. Only after three weeks, at a point when Bush was busy embracing traditional Democratic commitments to expand unemployment benefits and provide healthcare coverage, did Gephardt start talking seriously about a Democratic agenda.

"This has been a defining moment for Gephardt, and he has blown it," argued a top aide to a senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "Maybe he was in shock, maybe he really felt he was doing the right thing, but he has blown it. He has let the Republicans control the agenda to such an extent that I'm not sure whether we will be able to get back into it. I'm angry because I'm a Democrat. But I'm also angry for the country; the Republican approach really isn't going to work, and when Democrats let them implement it, we fail the people who are relying on us to get this thing right."

A veteran House Democrat adds, "For a long time, we've been saying the Republicans just don't get it. Since September 11, I've come to recognize that our leaders are the ones who don't get it."

Daschle's and Gephardt's allies dismiss the criticism, suggesting that their actions have reflected the desire of Americans for cooperation rather than confrontation. Gephardt says he has had an open door to the office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and that Hastert has signaled an honest determination to work with Democrats. "The Speaker's given me his word, and I trust him," the minority leader told members during a caucus debate. Gephardt claims that grumbling from within the caucus has to do with the fact that "bipartisanship is abnormal." But, he adds, these are abnormal times in Washington.

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