On American politics and policy.
On May 6, 1995, two weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, Bill Clinton gave the commencement speech at Michigan State University and used the opportunity to assail the rise of antigovernment, pro-militia sentiment among America‘s far right. "There is nothing patriotic about hating your government," Clinton said, "or pretending you can hate your government but love your country."
In the wake of Saturday‘s horrific shooting in Arizona, those words are as true today as they were fifteen years ago.
Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to change the tone in Washington beyond the partisan bickering that defined the Clinton and Bush years, so that Americans could "disagree without being disagreeable." But his political opponents never agreed to play by those terms. Apocalyptic depictions of Obama and ludicrous rhetoric about his record, which turned the president into a foreign-born socialist intent on destroying free enterprise, became a standard critique for much of the Tea Party and its acolytes.
"Relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right," wrote The New Yorker‘s George Packer blogged on Sunday. "And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders."
Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center found that "the number of extremist groups in the United States exploded in 2009 as militias and other groups steeped in wild, antigovernment conspiracy theories exploited populist anger across the country and infiltrated the mainstream." So-called "Patriot" groups increased by a shocking 244 percent in 2009. "This extraordinary growth is a cause for grave concern," said Mark Potok, editor of the SPLC‘s comprehensive report "Rage on the Right." The "radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism" of the Patriot movement were given legitimacy by the Tea Party and conservative icons like Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachman, the SPLC noted.
A report on right-ring extremism released by the Department of Homeland Security in April 2009 was chock full of similar conclusions. "Rightwing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda," DHS found. It‘s scary to read the report today and realize how prescient it was. (Interestingly enough, many conservatives criticized the report, which Michelle Malkin termed a "hit job.")
Four hundred and fifty thousand more guns were purchased in November 2008 than in November 2007, which not surprisingly contributed to an outpouring of violent incidents over the past two years. If you don‘t believe me, see this horrifying "insurrectionism timeline" compiled by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Few places in recent years have combined a more lethal mix of nativism, gun culture and religious right sentiment than Arizona, a place where Ken Silverstein of Harper‘s wrote that "the Tea Party is arguably the ruling party." And it seems like the national Republican Party is following Arizona‘s lead. "Should the Republicans succeed in retaking power nationwide over the next four years," Silverstein wrote in July, "the country might start to resemble the right-wing desert that Arizona has become." The GOP has already become the party of Palin and Beck, dominated by anger, ignorance and intolerance. It‘s delusional to treat them as anything but such.
Following the Oklahoma City bombing Clinton displayed signature empathy, but he also aggressively went after those who aided and abetted far-right lunatics like Timothy McVeigh. "Republicans pinpoint this as a moment when Clinton defined them—the party that had just taken Congress—as out of the mainstream," Slate‘s Dave Weigel reported. Without politicizing the current tragedy in Arizona, Obama should be similarly clear about the dangers this country faces if the current climate of right-wing hate is allowed to go unchallenged.
On April 18, 2010, the fifteenth anniversary of Oklahoma City, Clinton wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the lessons of that tragedy. "Criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy," the former president wrote. "No one is right all the time. But we should remember that there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws."
Clinton warned that such a line was crossed in Oklahoma City and that it could happen again. "In the current climate, with so many threats against the president, members of Congress and other public servants, we owe it to the victims of Oklahoma City, and those who survived and responded so bravely, not to cross it again," he wrote, nine months before Saturday's massacre in Arizona.
Rahm Emanuel is off running for mayor of Chicago, but his ghost will soon be making a return to the White House in the form of fellow Chicagoan Bill Daley, whom President Obama is naming as Rahm’s replacement today. The post is currently filled by low-key Obama aide Pete Rouse.
Daley, brother of outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, was commerce secretary under Bill Clinton, the chief architect of NAFTA, chairman of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, a top adviser/fundraiser for the Obama campaign and, most recently, Midwest chairman of JP Morgan Chase. He shares the corporate centrism of Emanuel and, when it comes to economic issues, may be worse. AFL-CIO head John Sweeney once said that Daley stood “squarely on the opposite side of working families.”
Daley lobbied for telecommunications giant SBC, publicly chided the Obama administration for pursuing healthcare reform (he serves on the board of drugmaker Merck), advised the Chamber of Commerce on Wall Street regulation (they wanted less of it) and reportedly urged Obama’s team to drop the most popular provision of the financial reform bill—the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. When Daley joined the board of the corporate-aligned Democratic group Third Way in July 2010, board chairman John Vogelstein said that Daley’s tasks would include “reforming entitlements”—a clever code word for cutting Social Security and Medicare. Yet despite all this, Obama is making Daley the focal point of his White House in year three. Didn’t the president learn anything from Rahm’s disastrous tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
This week Politico reported that Republican House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa brazenly asked over 150 companies and trade associations to specify which regulations and consumer protections they’d like to gut in the new Congress. It was precisely the type of story Democrats should pounce on to paint the GOP as a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate American. Instead, the Obama administration is close to appointing a JP Morgan exec to burnish its “pro-business” credentials. Talk about mixed messaging!
In fact, the Obama administration has tried its damndest to plot the “moderate, centrist course” that Daley accuses them of forsaking—abandoning the public option in healthcare reform, loading up the stimulus with tax cuts, extending the Bush tax cuts, escalating the war in Afghanistan and stepping away from potentially divisive fights over immigration reform and cap and trade. Indeed, it’s amazing that the administration doesn’t get more credit from the business community for saving the banks, rescuing the auto industry, stabilizing the economy and preventing another Great Depression. Americans want jobs and relief from the federal government and Obama administration, not another banker running the show.
--Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics
The ink was barely dry on the Obama-McConnell tax deal and already Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer had proclaimed the president “the new comeback kid.” Many in the media quickly echoed this new meme. “Political Rebound? Obama sets up as new Comeback Kid” seconded USA Today. “Some now see Obama as the ‘comeback kid’” wrote the Christian Science Monitor. You get the gist.
Six weeks ago, in the wake of the Democrats’ midterm shellacking, many commentators put the Obama presidency on life support; he was weak, spineless, out of touch. Now they’re promoting the exact opposite narrative—Obama is strong, ruthless, willing to put the good of the country ahead of his whiny liberal base.
Time for a reality check: Obama’s presidency didn’t end after the midterm election and it hasn’t been revived during the lame duck session of Congress. Polls currently show a mixed bag of news for Obama. After dropping precipitously in 2009, his numbers have held steady for much of 2010. According to the latest Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans approve of the job he’s doing as president, while 45 percent disapprove. He’s facing a divided country and a weak field of prospective 2012 GOP challengers, with the possible exception of Mitt Romney, who’ll spend the next year trying to convince Tea Party activists how “Romneycare” is different from “Obamacare.” Good luck with that, Mitt.
Yet other numerical indicators don’t paint a rosy picture for the president. No president since FDR has run for re-election or been re-elected when the unemployment rate was over 8 percent. Nearly six in ten Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to the latest Marist poll. Obama’s approval ratings among liberal Democrats—his strongest and most reliable constituency—fell below 80 percent for the first time last week, after the tax deal was announced. He’s losing his base but failing to bring independents back into the fold. (I made these points last week on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell. Posting clip below.)
Both substantively and politically, the tax deal was hardly a courageous move by Obama. His negotiation strategy came straight from the Rahm Emanuel school of politics—take the path of least resistance (extending all the Bush tax cuts), get what you can in return (unemployment benefits, the continuation of some progressive tax cuts), declare victory and move on. Or, in the case of this deal, kick the can down the road another two years and hopefully make the tough choices then.
Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a more clear cut victory for the president, a policy change that would have been unthinkable under George W. Bush, who spent much of his time in office trying to prevent equality for gay and lesbian Americans. Passage of the START treaty will be trumpeted as another major victory, even if most Americans don’t know what that is or care. But the tax cut deal, not the repeal of DADT or passage of START, will likely be the precursor of things to come in the new Congress. A hostile GOP House will want to negotiate on their terms and will be determined to make Obama’s life a living hell.
We don’t know how the president or Congressional Democrats will react to this new reality. The Obama administration accomplished a lot in the past two years but it also disappointed and alienated a good chunk of core supporters. Did Democrats make the most of their legislative supermajority, in terms of the breadth and scope of legislation passed, or did they unnecessarily compromise on too many top priorities? Obama supporters are debating this very question today and historians will continue to for years to come.
In the past two years Obama has been uneven on offense—determined to do big things but often ambivalent about how hard to push and the best path to get there—and untested on defense (that elbow he took on the basketball court was a bad sign). Can he outmaneuver his opponents or will he fall victim to the ideological extremity of the right, agreeing, for example, to cut Social Security benefits and shred a core platform of the Democratic Party?
Let’s hold off, please, from anointing Obama the comeback kid until we know what the full extent of that “comeback” actually entails.
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics
We’ve become accustomed to reading headlines like “DADT Repeal Fails in Senate, 57 to 40,” but that doesn’t make them any less surreal. Only in the Senate does winning by 17 votes constitute defeat. That’s because Republicans now require that every piece of legislation in the body receive 60 votes before it even comes up for a formal vote, let alone becomes law. The incessant misuse of the filibuster has turned the Senate into an increasingly dysfunctional body where, quite frankly, it’s miraculous that anything ever gets done.
The filibuster once again made headlines last week during Bernie Sanders’s dramatic nine-hour speech against the tax deal on the Senate floor. But Sanders’s stirring performance was a rare exception to the rule. These days, one senator can merely object to a bill moving forward and slow Senate business to a crawl as leaders scramble for 60 votes. In fact, the last Sanders-esque filibuster occurred in 1992, according to the LA Times, when New York Senator Al D’Amato held the floor for 15 hours and 14 minutes after an upstate New York typewriter maker sought to move its factory to Mexico.
A few years ago, Republicans threatened to shut down the Senate because Democrats were blocking George W. Bush’s judicial nominee. But the level of Senate obstructionism has skyrocketed in recent years, mostly off camera. The number of cloture motions—the requirement that a bill get sixty votes to proceed to a binding vote—has more than doubled since 2006, when Republicans assumed the minority.
Four hundred and twenty bills passed the House in the last session of Congress but died in the Senate, including the Employee Free Choice Act, cap-and-trade, pay equity for women, an audit of the BP claims fund, a plethora of critical jobs bills, and the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell.” DADT repeal failed in the current lame duck session, as did an extension of just the middle-class Bush tax cuts. Passage of even a few of these critical bills would have made Barack Obama’s presidency far more transformative.
“There have been more filibusters since 2006 than the total between 1920 and 1980,” notes New Mexico Senator Tom Udall. Udall was a guest on “Maddow” last night, where he explained his plan to change the Senate rules, known as “The Constitutional Option,” at the start of the new session of Congress on January 5. The Constitutional Option requires only a simple majority, 51 votes, to trigger a rule change. Maddow called it “the single most important thing that could be done to change Washington on a single day in the legislature.” The freshman Democrat outlined the specifics of his plan in a spiffy video released by his office last week.
Udall’s “Constitutional Option” has begun to pick up steam. This week a broad array of groups, including the AFL-CIO, SEIU, United Steelworkers, the Sierra Club, Common Cause and the Brennan Center for Justice, unveiled the “Fix the Senate Now” coalition and released an eight-point plan for reforming the Senate rules. “Far from fostering deliberation and bipartisanship, the current rules prevent matters from ever being considered, remove incentives for bipartisanship, and make it impossible for the Senate to fulfill its responsibilities,” they wrote in a joint letter to senators. As step one, the coalition backs Udall’s plan to change the Senate rules at the start of the next session, an idea that is garnering increasing support inside the Democratic caucus. (Common Cause will soon file a lawsuit in district court alleging that the filibuster is unconstitutional.)
So what should the new Senate rules be? Iowa Senator Tom Harkin has a proposal that would curtail lengthy filibusters and encourage genuine compromise. “On the first cloture attempt, sixty votes would be required,” Harkin explained in The Nation in June. “But, over a period of days or weeks, the number of votes required would fall to a simple majority of fifty-one senators.”
“Under my proposal, the minority would have ample opportunity to debate an issue, try to shift public opinion and attempt to persuade their colleagues,” Harkin writes. “However, the minority would no longer have the power to brazenly block the majority from legislating.”
Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley also has a plan to restore the Senate’s reputation as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” by encouraging senators to follow the lead of Bernie Sanders and actually be forced to stay on the Senate floor for hours and hours to “explain to the American people why they think they are right and a majority of Senators are wrong.” Ezra Klein calls Merkley’s plan “filibuster reform that even the filibuster’s supporters can love.”
Udall, Harkin and Merkley have introduced thoughtful and reasonable proposals worthy of consideration by the Senate and its leadership. Harry Reid has said in the past that he believes “the filibuster has been abused” like “the spitball was abused in baseball.” It’s within his power to push to change the status quo—and put a stop to endless gridlock and dysfunction—on January 5.
In his press conference yesterday, President Obama testily defended his tax cut deal with Republicans and labeled Democratic opponents of the plan "sanctimonious" and "purist."
So do Obama supporters agree with the president's assessment that this was the best compromise he could get and he did all he could to fight for middle-class tax cuts and not those for the wealthy?
The answer seems to be a pretty resounding no. A poll commissioned by MoveOn.org yesterday found that 74 percent of Obama volunteers or financial backers in '08 oppose the deal. More than half said they'd be less likely to support Democrats in 2012 who back the compromise and would be less likely to donate to Obama's re-election campaign. Pretty sobering statistics for the president and his team.
Yesterday I asked Obama supporters on Twitter and Facebook (an admittedly unscientific sample) what they thought of the deal. Were they satisfied or dismayed? Would it effect how they'd vote in 2012? The responses I received strongly rebuked the president's position.
"I feel betrayed and insulted," wrote Casey Erixon from Des Moines, Iowa, who volunteered for Obama in Council Bluffs and worked for the Iowa Democratic Party in 2008. "Why should I have to apologize for expecting courage and progressive leadership?"
Ashish Java from Atlanta said he was "horrified with Obama's inability to fight." Mark Bunster from Lake Oswego, Oregon, called the tax deal the "final straw" and said he'd support a primary challenge to Obama in 2012. Judith Chambers of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, expressed a similar sentiment: "I'm upset by tax cut deal. I'm tired of ‘compromises' Obama has made on most major legislation. I won't vote 4 a compromiser."
Andrew G, an Obama volunteer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, said he was "dismayed, but not enough to risk Obama losing in '12 with a vote for anyone else." A number of responders concurred, saying they'll still vote for Obama in 2012, despite their unhappiness with the current policy.
Not everyone was upset with the president's deal and rhetoric. Melissa Achtien, an Obama Republican from Hamilton County, Indiana, liked what she heard. "I appreciated his comments to the left today. If you look at the chart at thinkprogress.org it looks like he did pretty well in his negotiations. He has to compromise and govern more from the center. It is just a fact of life that the liberals have to accept."
But Pam Williamson, a longtime Democratic activist in Boone, North Carolina, who led her local party to big victories in 2006 and 2008, only to suffer major losses in 2010, took strong umbrage to the latest deal, which she saw as a symptom of a much broader problem with Obama. "I'm done with him," Williamson wrote. "Have learned not to expect anything from him. I try to get educated about issues, and I think with few exceptions he is much more interested in the deal than the particulars. Problem is: he's not good enough to beat the Republicans at...that game. I think he's hurting the Party, and I'm in it for the long haul. I am going to be more particular about what candidates I support. Fact is, even if I did support him, I know my county pretty well. We are going to have to run away from him hard to try to recoup here in 2012."
Beyond her frustration with Obama's politics—and how it's playing in a key swing state Obama won in 2008—Williamson makes a very good point about why the latest tax deal could haunt Democrats and progressives in the future. "This most recent sellout is very serious," she writes. "We are going to have to pay the $1 trillion it costs with borrowed money, and then the Republicans are going to start screaming again about the deficit to slash education, student loans, health care, childcare, you name it to pay for it all. Obama is also going to fall for cutting social security benefits—that's what that payroll tax cut is a set-up for. This is a political coup by the Republicans. I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday, but apparently President Obama did."
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama said over and over that he was running to "put an end to the Bush-McCain philosophy." Campaigning in Colorado just days before the election (see video below), Obama clearly stated his opposition to Bush-era economic policies and ridiculed the idea that "we should give more and more to millionaires and billionaires and hope that it trickles down on everybody else. It’s a philosophy that gives tax breaks to wealthy CEOs and to corporations that ship jobs overseas while hundreds of thousands of jobs are disappearing here at home."
Now Obama, in a blatant reversal, is preparing to do just that, agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which my colleague Chris Hayes accurately calls the "single defining domestic policy of W."
In 2008, Obama presented himself as a clean break from the Bush and Clinton dynasties and a fresh face for the nation and the world. Yet once in office he packed his White House with holdovers from the Bush and Clinton administrations and continued or even accelerated key Bush-era policies, whether in the realm of counterterrorism, Afghanistan or offshore drilling. The latest "compromise" on the Bush tax cuts, extending the upper-income tax cuts for two years in exchange for the continuation of unemployment benefits, is simply the latest in a series of capitulations from the Obama White House.
Obama and Congressional Democrats bungled the tax debate from the start, even though it was clearly a winning issue for the president and his party. Even though everyone knew the Bush tax cuts were set to expire at the end of this year, Democrats failed to develop an overall strategy for this issue last summer or force a vote in the Congress before the election—at a time when even Republicans like John Boehner said they’d vote to extend only the middle-class tax cuts if that was their only option. Yet Democrats refused to put the GOP on the spot or talk about the tax cuts during the campaign, blurring what should have been a core distinction between the parties; Democrats for the middle class, Republicans for the rich. As former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland said recently: “If we can't win that argument we might as well just fold up.”
Once Democrats finally decided to vote on only the middle-class tax cuts, last week, Republicans had all the momentum and the issue had become mere political theater. Even as Congress was voting on the Democrats’ plan, Obama signaled to Republicans that a more favorable deal was just around the corner, giving the GOP no incentive to side with Democrats. The Obama administration’s posture on the tax cuts is eerily similar to its stance on the public option during healthcare reform—the president says he wants the policy, but does absolutely nothing to fight for it, either through his own bully pulpit or on Capitol Hill. Last week, Organizing for America asked Obama supporters to phone bank in support of the DREAM Act, repealing "don’t ask, don’t tell," and a pay freeze for federal workers (yet another concession to the GOP), but did nothing on the tax front.
So now Obama is planning to spend $60 billion a year on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires rather than, for example, a national infrastructure plan that would rebuild America and put people back to work. It’s hard to see how the president will benefit either politically or substantively from this latest reversal of policy—caving on the tax cuts will only embolden GOP leaders, who already see Obama as weak and unprincipled, and will further deflate restless Democratic activists and Obama supporters. If this is how Obama plans to govern in the future, we’re in for a rough next two years.
UPDATE: Five major progressive groups--MoveOn, Democracy for America, TrueMajority, Credo Action and the Progressive Campaign Change Committee--are now urging the Senate not to ratify the imminent Obama deal. Says DFA chair Jim Dean: "Voters - and activists - are not buying the notion that tax cuts for high income earners are the only path to extending the middle class tax-cuts. As for any Democratic members of Congress who are going along with extending the tax cuts for high income earners -- this is the stuff that primaries are made of."
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.
Sure, she’s easily caricatured as an elitist West Coast liberal at odds with the salt-of-the-earth denizens of Middle America. And now many pundits are pointing to the re-election of Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats as a clear sign of all that’s wrong with the Democratic Party. It’s not. Nor is she to blame for the party’s recent woes or current identity crisis. The fact that Democrats are increasingly spineless, cannot communicate or defend their agenda and refuse to fight for their core belies—as illustrated most recently in the debate over the Bush tax cuts—is not Pelosi’s fault.
Despite her polarizing image, Pelosi has been one of the Democrats' few effective leaders, having steered nearly all of Obama's agenda through the House in the past two years. Obama subsequently failed to effectively sell those policies while the Senate dithered on so many of them. Yet for some reason Pelosi gets the blame for the sins of Obama, Reid, Emanuel, Summers, Geithner, the Blue Dogs and all the other actors who contributed to the party’s blowout in the last election.
“We didn’t lose the election because of me,” Pelosi argued recently. She’s right. Republicans tried and failed to tie Democratic candidates to her in 2006 and 2008. It worked in the past election only because of the economy and the country’s sour anti-incumbent mood. Interestingly enough, after Republicans lost the House in ’06, no one called on John Boehner to resign as leader of the House Republicans. He was well-suited to the job of steering the minority—keeping his caucus in line, drawing a contrast with the ruling party, funneling money and resources to promising candidates; all skills, incidentally enough, that Pelosi excels at. (Also, for all the talk of her unfavorable ratings, she is still better liked among the public than Harry Reid, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. The public hates all the Congressional leaders!)
Democrats today look like their pre-2004 selves, afraid to stand up for what they believe in and meekly hoping for compromise with a Republican Party that wants nothing of the sort. Instead of trying to undermine her, Democrats should study the victories Pelosi achieved in the past Congress: swift passage of healthcare reform, the economic stimulus and financial reform, and, unlike the Senate, approval of the Employee Free Choice Act, cap-and-trade, the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," pay equity for women, an audit of the BP claims fund and a plethora of critical jobs bills. When given power, she aggressively wielded it, which is more than you can say for Obama or Senate Democrats. Ironically, she is the one now in the minority. But Democrats still control the presidency and the Senate. They should take a page from Pelosi and start acting like it.
Postscript: I debated this topic on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan Show yesterday with Dave Weigel of Slate and Alicia Menendez of the New Democrat Network; if you’d like to hear more:
Having seen their numbers severely reduced after the 2010 election, Blue Dog Democrats are trying to maintain their influence within the Democratic caucus by backing Blue Dog whip Heath Shuler for House Minority Leader over Nancy Pelosi. "If…she doesn't step aside, then I will challenge her," Shuler told CNN yesterday. He stands virtually no chance of unseating Pelosi—and has admitted as much—but the mere fact that he's willing to challenge her is indicative of the current divide within the party. Despite her polarizing image, Pelosi has been one of the Democrats' few effective leaders, having steered nearly all of Obama's agenda through the House in the past two years. One can debate whether she's the best public face for Democrats, but Shuler is a terrible alternative. In fact, he epitomizes much of what is wrong with the party today.
A chiseled ex–football star and devout Southern Baptist from the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina (WNC), Shuler was the prize recruit of Rahm Emanuel's class of '06. Despite his conservative stances on guns, abortion, immigration and gay rights, Democratic activists in WNC rallied behind Shuler, who ran as an economic populist and promised to fight for new jobs and better healthcare for his mountain constituents. "The Democratic Party helps those who cannot help themselves," he said. "That's the Christian that I am."
Instead, Shuler became one of the most outspoken dissidents inside the Democratic Congress, voting against the stimulus, healthcare bill and Consumer Financial Protection Agency. He roomed with conservative Republicans like Tom Coburn and disgraced Nevada Senator John Ensign at the controversial C Street house in DC and became best known in Congress for sponsoring a draconian border security bill. "No Democrat has done quite so much in so short a time to arouse Pelosi's disdain," Politico reported.
His voting record didn't sit well with the Democratic activists back home who worked so hard to elect him. I detail this testy relationship in my new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics (pages 208–214). "We're so disappointed in Shuler," said former Polk County Democratic Party chair Margaret Johnson. "We laugh when we think about all that we did for him." Kathy Sinclair, the former Democratic chair in Buncombe County—the largest in Shuler's district—was even more blunt. "I'm not sure he is really representing his constituents of Western North Carolina," she told me last spring. "I didn't vote for him last time, and I won't vote for him next time."
Unlike some of his Blue Dog counterparts, Shuler survived his re-election bid—based largely on his personal popularity as a hometown football star—and claims he's voting in sync with his conservative district. Maybe so, but his antagonistic relationship with local Democrats suggests he'd be a poor fit to lead House Democrats, especially as they try to combat the extreme agenda of House Republicans. The last thing John Boehner needs is an ally across the aisle.
Shuler said over and over in his interview Sunday that he wants the Democratic Party to have a "big tent." But the party already has a big tent—that was its principal electoral strategy in '06 and '08—and Pelosi has been more than accommodating to the Blue Dogs in her ranks. That, in my view, has been one of the Democrats' problems.
By refusing to articulate or campaign on a bold legislative agenda, Democratic candidates deflated Democratic activists in 2010. That is one reason so many Democratic candidates lost in the past election. Elevating Shuler to the Democratic leadership would only severely exacerbate that problem.
Did the 2010 election repudiate the political and ideological strategy pursued by conservative Blue Dog Democrats or validate it? That topic is currently a point of heated debate within the Democratic Party, as recriminations fly in the wake of Tuesday's electoral "shellacking."
In his New York Times column today, Matt Bai defends the Blue Dogs, echoing the argument made by the centrist Democratic group Third Way before the election. Both Bai and Third Way take issue with a New York Times op-ed I wrote before the election, "Boot the Blue Dogs," which argued that Democrats would be better off with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive majority.
I wasn't arguing that every Blue Dog be purged from the party, nor that Democrats would benefit from losing sixty seats in the House, but rather that a handful of the loudest and staunchest apostate Democrats, who voted against nearly every one of Barack Obama's signature priorities, were doing more harm than good. They brought the party nothing in terms of legislative votes and only undermined the broader Democratic message and brand. Interestingly enough, these Democrats, like Bobby Bright of Alabama and Walt Minnick of Idaho, seemed to believe that if they just voted against the president frequently enough, they'd be able to differentiate themselves from the national Democratic Party and retain their seats. But that didn't happen—the Blue Dog coalition was slashed in half on Election Day. So while the election was certainly not a validation of liberalism, it wasn't an endorsement of Blue Dog–ism either. Obama could have done everything the Blue Dogs wanted and still Republicans would have called him a socialist and voters would have punished the party in power for a bad economy. And the Democratic base would have likely stayed home in even larger numbers as a result.
Bai also takes issue with the idea that Democrats paid a price for their political timidity. "The theory here, embraced by a lot of the most prominent liberal bloggers and activists, is that centrist Democrats doomed the party when they blocked liberals in Congress from making good on President Obama's promise of bold change," he writes. "Specifically, they refused to adopt a more populist stance toward business and opposed greater stimulus spending and a government-run health care plan. As a result, the thinking goes, frustrated voters rejected the party for its timidity." But polls showed that the healthcare bill would have been more popular—and easier to understand—had it included a public insurance option, since a majority of Americans wanted a structural check on the insurance industry in the legislation. And John Judis of The New Republic makes a very compelling case that Obama's aversion to populism severely weakened his political standing.
Moreover, Bai asserts that there's no historical precedent for a more ideologically cohesive Democratic majority. Maybe so, but that doesn't mean it's not something Democrats can aspire to. Republicans never controlled more than fifty-five seats in the Senate under Reagan or Bush II and were able to get a number of sweeping pieces of conservative legislation passed. Yet Democrats allowed Republicans or a few renegade Democrats to water down or thwart nearly every progressive piece of legislative proposed in the Senate. The difference between the parties has more to do with temperament than geography. Republicans are very skillful at convincing their moderate members from blue states, like Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, to vote with their caucus on most big issues—whether it be through friendly persuasion or outright threats. Democrats show no similar resolve, especially when it comes to fighting Republican filibusters, and usually agree to compromise before the big fights have even begun.
Bai notes that many Democrats, including Dean, once embraced the idea of an ideologically diverse big-tent party. But that doesn't mean that views on this issue can't evolve and change. Dean, in fact, had some frank words to say about the legislative blowback that resulted in part from the success of his own fifty-state strategy, as I detail in my new book, Herding Donkeys. I write on pages 215–216:
Despite the continued defections of red-state Democrats in Congress, Dean didn't question his original electoral strategy. "I'd never back off from the fifty-state strategy," he told me. "If you want to have a majority, you have to be a big tent party." But he'd recently beenponderingthe flaws in the tent's construction. "Having a big, open tent Democratic Party is great, but not at the cost of getting nothing done," he said."Bipartisanship is wonderful but not at the cost of passing legislation that doesn't do anything."
The Republicans had become obsessed with ideological purity, losing their majorities and staggering in the wilderness as a consequence, but Democrats, if anything, weren't ideological enough. Their red state contingent had so blurred what it meant to be a Democrat that the party itself could barely see. A whole crew of Democrats now roamed the halls of Congress—and, increasingly, the corridors of the White House—standing for little else but political expediency. "That's what makes me nervous about the political process right now," Dean admitted, "because there's always been a streak in DC of, do what it takes to get elected and if that means abandoning issues, go ahead. And that's dangerous because it makes any incumbent worthless." He'd recently been thinking that Democrats might be better off with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive majority—the type of arresting admission you rarely hear from an influential member of the ruling party. "If you have a majority of say sixty people in the Senate, but you can't deliver anything, why not have a majority of fifty-five and not have all this intraparty feuding?" he wondered.
Dean had a favorite saying about political majorities. "If you don't use it," he said, "you lose it."
Dean also believed that Democrats needed to be able to articulate their core values and stand up for them across the country, which is the exact opposite of what the Blue Dogs—and many Democratic candidates more broadly—did in 2010. My guess is that, in the not too distant future, Democrats will look back on the period from 2008–10 and say, We accomplished a lot. But, given the size of our majorities, we could've done so much more.