After giving George W. Bush far too easy a ride in his first term, the Democratic leadership in Congress promised that the second term was going to be different. “This is not a dictatorship,” announced Senate minority leader Harry Reid. The new head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel, declared, “The President neither has the mandate he thinks he has nor a majority to make policy.” But three months of watching the Democrats’ stumbling, often incoherent responses to Administration appointments and initiatives shows clearly that the party is making the same mistakes that cost it so dearly in the 2002 and 2004 elections.
It’s easy simply to blame the GOP majorities in the Senate and House when bad legislation passes those chambers. But too frequently it has been Democratic disorder rather than Republican treachery that has made possible the Bush White House’s legislative victories. That’s what happened with the mid-March Senate vote on a budget amendment that would have protected the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Seven Republican senators voted to protect ANWR from oil drilling. Had the Democratic caucus simply held firm in support of the amendment, it would have won by a 52-to-48 margin. But three Democrats–Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana–broke ranks to back the Administration. All three had their excuses, and if this had been the only bill on which Democrats failed to hold together, it might not be a cause for serious concern. But this is hardly an isolated example of Democrats doing the bidding of the President and the special interests that support him.
Consider the February Senate vote on tort “reform,” another issue on which Democrats are supposed to be the defenders of the common good against the rapacious Republicans. The battle lines could not have been clearer: Bush and his allies wanted to limit sharply the ability of citizens to file class-action lawsuits against corporations that injure or defraud them. A united Democratic opposition in the Senate could have mounted a populist challenge that might well have won GOP allies for a fight to preserve the sovereignty of state courts, which will be lost under the legislation. Instead, Democrats helped give Bush the first major legislative victory of his second term. Only twenty-six Senate Democrats opposed the proposal, while eighteen–including serial compromisers Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh and some who ought to know better, like Charles Schumer and Jay Rockefeller–sided with the GOP. It was just as bad in the House, where fifty Democrats–including Rahm (“no mandate”) Emanuel–backed the bill, handing Bush an easy win that provides momentum for an agenda that includes proposals to restrict asbestos litigation and curb medical malpractice suits.
Even more disappointing was the mid-March vote on legislation designed to make it harder for middle-class and poor Americans to declare personal bankruptcy, leaving crooked companies like Enron free to declare bankruptcy themselves and thus be protected from claims like those by employees who lost their pensions. The vote on the measure, which had been blocked for years by such progressive Democrats as the late Paul Wellstone and a timely veto from then-President Bill Clinton, passed by an overwhelming 74-to-25 vote. Eighteen Democrats–including Reid and key players like Joseph Biden of Delaware and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico–aligned themselves with the President and the credit card companies that wrote and promoted the bill.
Apologists for these egregious compromises would have us believe that Democrats, as a minority party, have little leverage. But the Social Security debate belies such claims; with Democrats sticking together against privatization, it is the Republicans who have found themselves under pressure to compromise. The same goes for the Democratic refusal to give ground on ethics issues, which has done so much to increase pressure on scandal-plagued House majority leader Tom DeLay. Unfortunately, shows of solidarity on Social Security and ethics issues represent the exception rather than the rule when it comes to checking and balancing the White House and its Congressional allies. Again and again Democrats have failed the basic tests of an opposition party. They couldn’t muster the forty votes needed to mount a Senate filibuster against Alberto Gonzales’s nomination for Attorney General, only twelve Democrats opposed the nomination of Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State and none opposed the nomination of Michael Chertoff to head the Department of Homeland Security, despite concerns about Rice and Chertoff that were as troubling as those regarding Gonzales’s role in approving torture.
House Democrats have been even less effective in their opposition than their Senate colleagues. Despite polls showing that the vast majority of Americans opposed federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case, only fifty-three Democrats opposed DeLay’s move to override Florida state law and judicial rulings in a rush to satisfy the demands of the GOP’s most extreme constituencies. Only thirty-six opposed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which Representative Jan Schakowsky correctly identified as a move to “put Big Brother in charge of deciding what is art and what is free speech.” And just thirty-nine rejected the Administration’s demand for another $81.4 billion to maintain the occupation of Iraq and related military misadventures.
In 2002 and 2003 the Democrats tried the strategy of giving the President blank checks for the invasion and occupation of Iraq and then criticizing how the President spent them. That strategy cost the Democrats any chance to frame the debate about the war and ultimately cost them at the polls. But while some individual Democrats, like California Representative Henry Waxman, have come to recognize the folly of such an approach, the party as a whole continues to cede too much ground to the President–on Iraq and on most other issues.
Perhaps being shamed publicly, and being pressured by the grassroots, will help Congressional Democrats get their act together. Toward that end, we’ve initiated a biweekly “Minority/Majority” feature that identifies–by name–Democrats who give succor to the GOP. (It also praises those who’ve helped the cause of Democrats becoming the majority party again.) If Democrats don’t define themselves as an effective opposition soon, they could end up being an ineffective one for a long time to come.