Tuesday, February 05, 2008

What's wrong with the Democratic Party?

We know what's wrong with the national Republican Party. They can't govern. As Fred Kaplan has just described in his new book Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, the Republicans live in a fantasy world and when given the power to lead government they act as though their fantasies were reality, with the devastating results that such insane behavior would normally be anticipated to deliver. (See How conservative fantasies have worked to destroy American power.) Republicans can get elected because getting elected is all about making promises. Fantasies help a politician make bigger, better and more grandiose promises. But once in office, the American Republican Party has shown itself to be consistently unable to deliver.

If the Democratic Party is to defeat the Republicans nationally they have to take advantage of the failures the Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated and offer a better political product. Voters aren't going to switch unless they think the Democrats can do better. That turns out to be a lot harder than it looks from the outside. When Democrats took the Congress back in 2006 there was a momentary hope that the grown ups had returned to government. The Democrats haven't delivered on the promise of the 2006 election, and their polls have dropped as a result.

Essentially the Republicans view the 2008 elections as lost before they start. Their problem is to pull the Democrats down so that the Democrats can't make big gains this year and build for another election when the problems the Republicans have created are forgotten by the voters. The Republican solution is to be total obstructionists, something the structure of the Constitution makes very easy.

The result is that the Democrats have a real image problem. They came in with great promise, raising hopes for change, and now they are shown that they aren't especially more efficient than the Republicans were. The Democrats appear to have compromised too much, and having compromised with the Republicans, the Democratic leadership in Washington have bought into much of the Republican disaster. Why has this image developed? Look at the way the politics look.

The American people have two choices for a national party, the Republicans and the Democrats. It seems reasonable that if the Republicans show the electorate that they are consistent incompetents and blowhards, then the American people are going to choose the alternate party - the Democrats - to run government. And they have in the past. They chose Bill Clinton because Bush 41 failed to deliver what the voters wanted. They chose Bush 43 because they were disgusted by the conflict between the Republicans and Bill Clinton, Gore was out of Clinton's regime, and Bush - from outside Washington D.C. - promised a new, quieter and more effective government. Remember Bush as the uniter who would work across party lines? Pure rhetoric, of course, but after the disaster of the impeachment of Bill Clinton, it was what the voters were looking for.

Bush's failure to live up to his promises, together with the failure of his War in Iraq and his ill-fated effort to destroy the well-like Social Security Program, caused the American people to rather resoundingly give the Congress to the Democrats in 2006. Glenn Greenwald (day pass required) carries the story on from there. The Democrats took office in January 2007 with great approval from the public.
Early on, ratings for Congressional Democrats were consistently near 50% as Americans had high hopes for their willingness to change the course of the country and place real limits on the deeply unpopular Republican policies. But as Congressional Democrats became more and more characterized by capitulation and an unwillingness to stand up to Republicans, their approval numbers steadily dropped to its current mark, just one point away from their lowest approval rating of the last 14 months.

The more willing Democrats are to stand up to Republicans and oppose their defining policies, the more popular they become. The less willing they are to do so, the more eager they are to erase distinctions and accommodate this deeply unpopular party, the more unpopular Democrats become. The empirical evidence for those propositions is close to indisputable. The profound rejection by the country of the Republican Party permits only one lesson: the country wants a party that opposes them, not resembles or fears them.
It is very clear to the non-Republicans who watch the political arena closely that the Republicans have failed. Fred Kaplan of Slate magazine points out why the Republicans have failed so completely at governing. The Republican incompetence is based on two major fantasies, "... that the world changed after Sept. 11, when it didn't, and that the United States emerged from the Cold War stronger than before, when in fact it was weaker."

The image of the Democratic Party leadership in Washington is that they all came to power by compromising with (1) those who based their actions on those fantasies and (2) those who were pushing the Christian evangelist agenda. Look at the key Democratic Congressional leaders.
  • Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader - Senate Democratic Whip, first as minority whip from 1999 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2005, and as majority whip from 2001 to 2003. He was minority leader in 2005 and then became majority leader when the Democrats took the Senate in 2007. While he has at times been confrontational against the Republicans, he apparently sees his job as seeing that the Senate actually appears to be functioning, not simply in paralysis. That and the Senate tradition of the filibuster gives the Republicans a great deal of leverage over him. Reid is also a conservative Mormon who is likely to believe the same fantasies as the Republicans.
  • Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House - She was first elected to Congress in 1987 in a safe Democratic district and became House minority Whip in 2001. When Dick Gebhard ran for President in 2002 she was elected House Minority Leader to replace him, and when the Democrats retook control of the House in 2006 she was elevated to the position of Speaker. She rejected running on the idea of impeaching President Bush, apparently fearing that the voters would see it as nothing more than political payback for the 1998 Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton. She apparently saw any effort to impeach Bush as a net political negative for the Democratic Party, and has successfully blocked all efforts in 2007 to impeach him.

    I guess it's a fine line. An effort to impeach Bush could be viewed by voters as the Democrats being just like the Republicans, but refusing to entertain impeachment is clearly viewed by many voters as refusing to stand up to the clear Republican political atrocities and even criminal wrong-doing. Does the electorate really consider an effort to impeach Bush and Cheney to be the same level of destructive and otherwise purposeless politics as the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton?
  • Steny Hoyer, House Majority Leader - Hoyer is a long-time close associate of Nancy Pelosi. They by both interned together for Senator Daniel Brewster (D-Maryland) in 1962. Hoyer was first elected to Congress in 1981, and was elected Minority Whip in 2002, replacing Pelosi when she was elevated to House Minority Leader. When Pelosi became Speaker of the House in 2006 Hoyer became Democratic Party Majority leader.
Have the clearly extremist actions and positions taken by the Republican Party in both Congress and in the White House made it impossible for the Democrats to respond for fear of looking equally extremist?

Clearly a lot of Democrats believe that what Bush and the Republicans have done since 1994 call for correction, but many of the correcting actions can be painted as politically extreme by those who see only what is happening today and ignore the history that brought those actions on.

Those of us who are Democratic political junkies get really frustrated when The Democratic Congressional leaders so clearly ignore the history of criminality, corruption and incompetence of the Republican Party. The refusal of the Democratic leaders to stand up to the Republicans is immensely frustrating. But most voters do not follow politics closely. They do not decide who to vote for until shortly before the election, and they have little historical knowledge of the candidates or the issues. They are easily swayed by emotional issues, political negative attacks and rhetoric from people they don't know well enough to know they should not trust them. Unfortunately, winning the elections depends more on the last minute deciders than it does on the issues and candidates' effectiveness in office that the political junkies consider so important.

The Democratic leadership clearly feels that they have to cater to both groups, and more to the late deciders than to the political junkies if they are to win elections. It is not enough that a politician be correct. First he or she has to get elected. The result is that the Democratic leadership is not doing anything to rock the boat. Rocking the boat makes it more likely that the politician will lose the election. Unfortunately, more and more of the American public wants change, and change means rocking the boat.

What's wrong with the Democrats? 2008 is very likely to be a pivotal election. The Democrats don't dare do anything to lose it, so they are doing nothing controversial that might be viewed as rocking the boat. The Democrats need every swing election to succeed in removing the Republicans. The Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have nothing to lose by being pure obstructionists, since this is an election they are unlikely to win anyway. They can do whatever they need to to keep the Democrats from appearing to successfully run Congress, and the Democrats will get the blame unless some things are passed. Since they are unlikely to regain the Congress, they don't need the swing districts and states. Having written off the close elections, the Republicans can be as obstructionist as they want. The Republicans taking the action are in secure districts and states, and if they can bring the image of the Democrats down to the same level of incompetence the Republicans already enjoy, then they can survive as a party and perhaps regain the Congress in a later election.

The facts that large segments of the Washington Media prefer the Republicans, defunding troops in Iraq can easily be spun as failure to support the troops at war and as abandoning the fight before it is lost, that a coalition of "blue dog" Democrats still cross over to support Republicans, the ability to threaten a filibuster can require a minimum of 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate and that Bush can veto with impunity (since he isn't running for reelection) and demand a 67 vote majority to pass anything, all together make responsible governance by the Democrats almost impossible.

Worse, the Republicans are quite good at stopping any progress and then placing the blame on the Democrats. The only thing left for Democrats to do is publicize the Republican obstructionism and face down George Bush. Bush's pool ratings would seem to make this easy, but can the Democrats hold their coalition together as the attempt it? Joe Lieberman and the Blue dog Democrats are happy to cross over and make life more difficult for good governance.

Hell, I don't know the answer. It's going to be interesting to see how this works out this year.

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