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The Democrats' Dilemma | The Nation

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The Democrats' Dilemma

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This is difficult, but imagine what it would be like if Democrats in Congress actually had their act together.

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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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In this scenario, it is barely a week after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Airline lobbyists have flooded Capitol Hill with demands for tens of billions in bailout money. The Bush Administration wants to engineer one of the largest corporate welfare payments in US history, and Congressional Republicans are unlocking the Social Security lockbox to find the money. But the legislation contains no money for displaced workers and no protections against the breaking of labor contracts. "President Bush was right when he said this is a time when we must all pull together," says Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, as he announces Democratic opposition to the bailout. "But this bill says that a wealthy few will be made whole while the colleagues of those brave pilots and flight attendants who died at the hands of the terrorists must fend for themselves. We will not support any legislation that leaves the real heroes of September 11 behind." Echoing Daschle, House minority leader Dick Gephardt says, "America's security will not be threatened by fixing this bill; it will, in fact, be enhanced."

How would America have responded to this breaking of the bipartisan lockstep? "I think the American people would have said, 'That's right! Democrats are talking sense. This is a time to take care of everyone, not just the CEOs.' People would have applauded us for standing up. They would have recognized that what we were doing was patriotic and responsible," says Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. "And you know what? I think the Republicans would have backed down. That would have changed everything; it would have changed things so that issues like protecting jobs, providing healthcare, getting money into job retraining and education programs would have been much more central to these debates we are having. That's an opportunity that we lost, and I'm very frustrated by it."

Schakowsky is not alone. Democrats across the political spectrum have been complaining on Capitol Hill about how Gephardt and Daschle have seemed to be determined to confirm the observation of Senate minority leader Trent Lott on the evening of Bush's "win this war" speech to Congress: "Tonight there is no opposition party." This is not to say that Capitol Hill Democrats are of one mind about the form an opposition should take. But it is to say that even the most cautious Democrats are wondering whether their party is sacrificing its future on the altar of wartime "bipartisanship."

During and after the hastily organized September 21 bailout vote, there was open grumbling about the fact that Daschle's wife is a lobbyist for the airline industry; and almost a month after the attack, Democratic senators note that the featured image on Daschle's website is a photograph of Washington's most powerful Democrat hugging George W. Bush.

On the House side, a senior member complains, "There is a lot of feeling right now that Dick Gephardt is more interested in looking presidential than in leading an effective opposition. I'm hearing people say maybe it's time for him to make the choice, because these last few weeks have proven that you can't do both." House Democratic caucuses have been more frequent and more bitter than at any time in recent memory. A meeting of Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee degenerated into a screaming match over where to draw the line on compromises with Republicans over Bush's demand for fast-track negotiating authority to shape free-trade agreements. Deficit hawks want to know why, after preaching the gospel of fiscal restraint for a decade, Democratic leaders are helping Republicans crack open the Social Security lockbox. Recession-wary progressives wonder whether the term "public works" will ever re-enter the party's parlance.

To be sure, a party that elected San Francisco progressive Nancy Pelosi as whip on October 10 and that includes both Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who cast the sole vote against authorizing a "use of force" blank check in response to the terrorist attacks, and hawks such as Senator Zell Miller is hardly monolithic. But there is remarkable unity on the theme that the party lacked a sense of direction in the defining weeks after the September 11 attacks.

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