When he ran for president, Howard Dean always told his supporters, “You have the power.” That line—and its message of citizen empowerment—became the mantra for Dean’s insurgent campaign (and the Tea Party). Someone should tell President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress that it still rings true. For past two years—and until the Christmas holiday—Democrats control the presidency, the Senate and the House. Starting in January, they’ll retain command of the executive branch and the Senate, which is more than they had for three-quarters of the Bush Administration. Memo to Democrats: start acting like it. As Robert Kuttner put it in the Huffington Post: “Backbone, Please.”
The first order of business: hold a vote only on extending the Bush era tax cuts for the middle class, which even John Boehner once said he’d vote to approve. Democrats can force Boehner’s hand and make him oppose a tax cut for 98 percent of Americans so that he can defend the 2 percent who’d benefit from extending the tax cuts for the wealthy, at a cost of $700 billion over ten years. Nancy Pelosi is considering such a vote this week in the House; Harry Reid, if he actually wanted to show some leadership after surviving his re-election bid, could follow suit. If Democrats really felt the need to compromise with Republicans, they could write the language so that only those making $1 million or more would see their taxes return to Clinton era rates (when, I might add, the economy was booming). But simply extending the tax cuts for the wealthy because the GOP demands it is not compromise. It’s capitulation. And it’s hard to see how Democrats will be rewarded for caving on such a core issue, when the public clearly wants those tax cuts to expire.
On to the next order of business: repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The military top brass wants the law to go; ditto the public (58 percent favor repeal in the latest Pew poll, while only 27 percent oppose allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military). That includes 62 percent of independents and 40 percent of Republicans. That means that at least a handful of Republicans should, theoretically, support DADT repeal, especially once a long-awaited military report, to be released Wednesday, shows that repealing it will have no effect on troop morale (especially when compared to the physical and psychological impact of four or five war zone deployments). But even if the GOP stands united in opposition, Democrats can attach DADT repeal to the defense authorization bill and force those who oppose it to round up fifty-one votes, which they’ll be hard pressed to do. And the Obama administration can actively lobby for repeal, rather than continuing to defend a policy in federal court that it claims to oppose. (A quick addendum: the Center for American Progress recently released a very detailed report on how Obama can use the power of the presidency to pursue a change agenda, something George W. Bush never shied away from.)
There are other issues to be considered in the lame duck Congress—and more fights to be had—but these two will set the tone for how Obama and Democratic leaders plan to deal with an energized and emboldened Republican Party moving forward into 2011 and 2012. The bold and decisive party usually tops the meek and insecure.
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.