Congress Without Cohabitation: The Democrats' Morning-After

On September 30, 1990, after being closeted for weeks at Andrews Air Force Base with White House representatives Richard Darman and John Sununu, Democratic congressional leaders brought back an agreement on the federal budget that the press initially treated as a historic compromise. It was actually an astonishingly Republican document -- and a symbol of how deeply compromised the Democrats had become sharing power with a Republican administration. To slay the deficit, the agreement cut Medicare by $60 billion, limited any peace dividend, blocked new domestic spending, and relied on regressive taxes that would have increased the tax burden of the poorest Americans by 11 percent, the middle class by 3.3 percent, and the richest one percent of Americans by just 1.7 percent.

After ten years of deficits and failed supply-side dogma, why had the Democrats continued to accept the hand the Republican White House dealt them? "[Speaker] Tom Foley started off with the premise that if no budget were passed, we would be blamed," says a prominent liberal California congressman. "Once you accept that premise, the White House has most of the bargaining power."

Until one last, fatal miscalculation, the White House strategists had deftly exploited the Democrats' sense of their own weakness. The Democratic leaders felt lucky to have avoided a cut in capital gains taxes -- and gamely backed the deal. The almost unanimous counsel of economists, editorial writers, and the Democrats' own leaders was to pass the budget, no matter what the cost to equity or party principle. "Deficit reduction is the only proven tool for assuring long-term growth," Leon Panetta, the budget committee chairman, declared, in a final speech beseeching skeptical Democrats to support the package. "...Rise above your regional interests. Rise above ideology and partisanship, and cast a vote for the greater good of the country."

But late on the night of October 4, 1990, by a vote of 254 to 179, the House of Representatives rejected the agreement, when a defection of Republican back-benchers angry at the new taxes emboldened enough rank-and-file House Democrats to vote against the deal too. Then, in an unexpected turnabout, the Democrats abruptly recovered their souls -- or at least their wits. With Congressman Dan Rostenkowski's "Soak-the-Rich" alternative, they were back on the popular side of a powerful pocketbook issue, almost in spite of themselves. "Rosty," with his fullback's shoulders and working-class district, was symbolically perfect. "Finally," observed Democratic strategist Ralph Whitehead, "the Republicans have the briefcase and the Democrats have the lunchpail. Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?" By the end of the congressional session, the budget debate was usefully polarized -- and the Democratic pole turned out to be the one that echoed voter sentiments as well as liberal ideology.

The effect was exhilarating to Democratic morale. The Democrats went on to make gains in the mid-term elections, and then to function as a surprisingly coherent opposition to an early shooting war in the Persian Gulf. So it is worth asking whether the 1990s will at last usher in an era of robust partisanship, in welcome contrast to the Democrats' prolonged, intermittent coma. To answer that question, one must first take a backward look at the sources of Democratic paralysis in the 1980s.

Cohabitation, American-Style
For more than a decade, despite profound differences between the two parties, congressional Democrats have often dwelt in cohabitation with the White House rather than defining a coherent opposition program. Frequently, they have seemed like the junior partners in a coalition.

The term "cohabitation" was first used to describe the peculiar coalition of the French Socialist President, Francois Mitterrand, with a conservative prime minister, Jacques Chirac, during the 1986-88 period when the Socialists had lost their working majority in the National Assembly. As it turned out, cohabitation better served the executive, who had far more residual power. When the brief experiment ended, Mitterrand grabbed most of the bedclothes and kicked Chirac out of bed, not vice versa.

Americans have more historical experience with cohabitation than have the French, but we have never previously had so long a period when one party controlled Congress and the other the executive branch. The House has been in Democratic hands for 36 years straight, and the Senate for all but 8 of those 36 years, while the Republicans have held the White House for 18 out of the past 22. Thus, for an entire generation, divided government has been the norm. Robert Michel, the Republican leader of the House, has set a new record, serving in the minority for his entire 34-year career in Congress. It has become a cliche that the voters seem to like divided government. "They vote for Democratic congressmen to sponsor popular programs, and Republican presidents so they won't have to pay for them." Or divided government is said to reflect the voters' skepticism about government itself. A further explanation is that the Democrats still enjoy broad public support on bread-and-butter issues, while Republicans capture allegiance on the symbolic issues of patriotism, personal security, and mainstream cultural values.

Responsibility Without Power
At first blush, this lock on the legislative branch should have the effect of consolidating and energizing the congressional Democrats as a partisan opposition. But, in practice, the effect has been the reverse. As the long-term majority party, especially in the House, Democrats have come to see themselves as a party of government, with responsibility to Make the System Work. Indeed, the more extreme the policies of Reaganism, the more Democrats were constrained by that conception of their role. In his first term, President Reagan was able to paint the Democrats as trying to add taxes and subtract program benefits -- simply because he used preposterous economic assumptions and they used more realistic ones. "We tried to take the high road of responsibility, and we paid dearly for it," recalls Congressman Dave Obey of Wisconsin. "We ended up trying to compete with them over technical assumptions." Because it deferred difficult choices, Reagan's rosy scenario was so popular among the electorate that enough "Boll Weevil" Democrats in the House bolted to give Reagan a working fiscal majority.

Moreover, congressional Democrats have been whipsawed by the low repute of Congress as an institution -- an ill repute that Republicans have adroitly marketed. Seemingly, the more they played a purely partisan role, the more they risked contributing to the public antipathy to the institution and, by extension, to themselves. But by failing to take a partisan stance, they obscured differences between the two parties, and ended up sharing responsibility for bad policies that most congressional Democrats actually detested.

The obstacles to effective opposition are also systemic. In a parliamentary system, the prime minister is leader of a legislative majority; parliamentary parties, therefore, tend to be relatively disciplined. But in our system, Congress is a co-equal branch of government, and legislative parties tend to be neither disciplined nor ideologically coherent, only a loose agglomeration of members elected in individual districts. This structure creates several independent constraints on the Democrats' ability to define a clear ideological opposition. In our system, an individual congressman is many things -- an advocate and benefactor for his district; a subcommittee or committee chairman; an incumbent seeking to survive. Probably the weakest among his several identities is member of an opposition caucus. As the majority party in the House throughout the 1980s and the Senate since 1986, the Democrats controlled legislative committees. Absent a super-majority to override presidential vetoes, however, Democratic committee chairmen needed Republican votes and administration acquiescence to salvage even a shred of the programs to which they had dedicated their legislative careers. This also contributed to an absence of salutary polarization.

Moreover, the post-Watergate reforms of 1975 had a double-edged effect on party coherence. They usefully undercut the old seniority system, overthrew many entrenched conservatives, and elevated the party caucus. But the reforms also reflected a "good-government" procedural reformism rather than a substantive liberal agenda, and they cut loose each congressman to operate as more of a freelance. Many of the class of 1974 thought of partisanship as antithetical to good government.

One can think of other good structural, historical, or constitutional reasons why the Democrats' opposition to the Republican executive was blunted during the 1980s. But I will argue that virtually all of them let the Democrats off the hook too gently.

The Reagan Effect
Through most of the 1980s, Democratic congressmen and senators were dazzled by the apparent popularity of Ronald Reagan's ideas. Almost as shocking as the defeat of Jimmy Carter was the stunning ouster in 1980 of a generation of the most distinguished and effective Democratic Senators -- Frank Church, George Mc-Govern, Birch Bayh, Gaylord Nelson, and several more. It seemed entirely possible that the House might go Republican in 1982. As a consequence, especially in the first Reagan term, Democrats sought to associate themselves with Republican ideas. Many wished frankly to appear less Democratic and to win reelection as non-ideological, loyal servants to their districts. Under Representative Tony Coelho, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tried to recruit moderate-sounding congressional candidates who would be more acceptable to business. Under their new Ways and Means Chair- man, Dan Rostenkowski, a man waltzed by the White House more than once during the 1980s, the Democrats put their own spin on the 1981 tax cut, sharing the credit and the blame and failing to define an axis of opposition. They had their own versions of other Republican themes, from deregulation and arms buildup to budgetary balance. In a reversal of the politics of the 1960s, Republicans defined the agenda and Democrats offered a pale, me-too imitation.

In hindsight, the loss of twelve Democratic Senate seats in 1980 was a fluke, not the beginning of a trend. Despite a far superior Republican national machine, surprisingly little of Reagan's popularity rubbed off on GOP congressional candidates. In 1982, as they regained some partisan fervor, the Democrats picked up 26 House seats. In 1984, despite the trouncing of Walter Mondale, the voters split their ballots in no fewer than 189 congressional districts that went for Reagan while returning a Democrat to Congress. By 1986 Democrats were able to take back the Senate. And notwithstanding an already anomalously large House majority, the Democrats have now picked up seats in three straight House elections. Yet throughout the 1980s, thanks in part to the mystique of Reagan's persona and to the politics of fiscal gridlock that virtually precluded an opposition program requiring affirmative use of government, Democratic legislators time and again played on Republican territory. Only episodically, when they championed the traditional Democratic issues, did they regain strength.

The Reality of Sisyphus
Why didn't the lesson sink in? In part, the congressional Democrats' chronic fatigue syndrome kept being reinfected by the dismal showing of their presidential standard-bearers. Each presidential loss -- five out of six since 1968 -- began a new cycle of demoralization. The current mood of restored Democratic self-confidence is the third since 1980. Each time, the Democrats make one more Sisyphean effort to roll the rock back up Capitol Hill. And, of course, the latest would be shattered by a fourth GOP presidential landslide in 1992.

After Reagan's election, the Democrats were traumatized for an entire year. Belatedly, as the recession of 1982-83 deepened and Republican fiscal credibility sank, the Democrats mounted a successful, soul-restoring defense of Social Security -- and the congressional party regained some gumption. But no sooner had they recovered partisan spunk when the Mondale blowout reinforced the feeling that whatever the Democrats were selling, the public wasn't buying. Mondale's defeat convinced House Speaker Tip O'Neill that Democrats should never again be the first to propose a tax hike. The 1986-88 cycle was more of the same: a restoration of partisan vigor in the 1986 mid-term election, real party energy around the Iran-contra scandal, a drawing of the line against further military buildup, high hopes for 1988 -- all dashed by the Dukakis debacle.

However secure their lock on Congress, Democrats are hardly immune to the impact of presidential elections. David Dreyer, formerly an assistant to Senator Gary Hart and to Representative Tony Coelho, now a senior staff aide to House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, explains the psychology in morbid terms almost worthy of thana-tologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. 'There is always a grieving, a healing, and a hanging back after you have a defeat in a presidential election; it is natural for the party to turn inward and go through a period of self-criticism, if not self-immolation, as you reconstruct how it could have been done better, why we lost, and who was to blame."

Congress also generally gives a new president the benefit of the doubt. In Reagan's case, the attempted assassination a few months after he assumed office made him that much less vulnerable to partisan attack. "In 1981, everyone wanted Ronald Reagan to succeed," recalls former Speaker Jim Wright. "The country didn't want another failed presidency, so everyone bent over backwards to cooperate. Then after the assassination attempt, he came back with a real mantle of heroism. Here was a man back from the dead, a national treasure. We were at a terrible disadvantage, fighting a rearguard action." At the outset of the Bush administration, Bush made the Democrats' job harder by seizing the political center on issues like education and the environment. 'To actually legislate, you had to compromise, which submerges partisan differences," says a liberal senator.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis did not run as liberals, their defeat by more conservative Republicans lent credence to the claim by conservatives within the congressional Democratic Party that the logical lesson was to move right. If anything, Mondale suffered a blowout because he ran as the austerity candidate. Yet his defeat was seized by the opponents of "interest-group liberalism" and led to the formation of the center-right Democratic Leadership Council, preaching a message of guarded centrism. "One big impediment to our success was a whole group of our own people insisting that any talk of equity was political death," says Dave Obey. Dukakis, likewise, ran as a technocrat, the consensus candidate of the party establishment. He claimed that the election was not about ideology but competence; for this the voters adjudged him ideologically incompetent. Yet his defeat was also taken in some quarters as a repudiation of liberalism. Late in 1990, the congressional party at last reclaimed a winning liberal theme in tax fairness. Yet, as we shall see, there remain several obstacles to turning this win into a more generalized winning "story."

Congressional Leadership -- an Oxymoron?
Despite the spillover effect of presidential defeats, and the constitutional fact that the Democrats are not a parliamentary bloc, a good deal of the blame rests with Congress's own Democratic leadership. A comparison of the three House speakers of the 1980s -- Tip O'Neill, Jim Wright, and now Tom Foley -- is highly instructive.

O'Neill, who became speaker in 1977, defined his role in rather traditional terms -- more as leader of the House than as leader of his party. He was treated rudely by the novices around Jimmy Carter, and in many respects he enjoyed a more comfortable relationship with Ronald Reagan. A fellow Hibernian and teller of tales, Tip shared many a post-session drink with Reagan. Whatever their political differences, the politics never got personal. A frequent O'Neill golfing partner was House Republican leader Bob Michel. O'Neill also gave a wide berth to the independent barons of the House leadership, the committee chairmen, which won him affection but at the cost of party cohesion.

There was bitter criticism of Tip early in 1981 by both House liberal and moderate back benchers, for ceding practical control to the Republican-Boll Weevil coalition. "Tip's view was that it wasn't our job to offer initiatives," recalls a member of his leadership team. "We were to wait until the President offered an initiative, and then counterpunch." Gradually, O'Neill assumed a more partisan role, most emphatically in the Social Security rescue, but when he retired in 1986, he was still insisting that Democrats had to shed the tax-and-spend label and wait for the White House to move first on taxes.

Jim Wright, who became speaker in January 1987, was a whole other story. A populist Texan, he attempted to define the speaker primarily as a party leader, in this case an opposition party leader, more strongly than any speaker since the dictatorial Joe Cannon, who was dethroned in 1910. No sooner did Wright assume office, than he succeeded in forcing through an expensive clean water bill over Reagan's veto, followed by a highway bill and a trade bill passed the same way. He also succeeded in making sure that the budgets passed by the House were party-line, Democratic-sponsored budgets, rather than coalition affairs of House Republicans and Boll Weevil Democrats. In graphic contrast to O'Neill, he turned the House Democratic organization into the speaker's own machine. He wielded a heavy gavel, manipulating procedure in a way that violated many traditional House courtesies, infuriating Republicans and not a few Democrats.

Under the House rules, a "rule" governing the terms of floor debate for a bill may be approved by a simple majority. A rule, for example, can permit amendments or require a simple up-or-down vote. In the Senate, because of the unanimous consent tradition and the filibuster, a working majority is sixty votes and sometimes nothing less than unanimity. But a House leader who chooses to play hardball can turn his ample leverage to reward friends and punish enemies into a working majority, and thereby can make the House function almost in parliamentary fashion.

Wright did. In 1987, for the first time in forty years, the budget was passed on time, and every single appropriation bill was on the President's desk ahead of schedule. And for the first time in the Reagan presidency, the congressional Democrats in 1987 largely defined the shape of the budget. There would be $36 billion of deficit reduction -- $18 billion in tax hikes, $18 billion in spending cuts, with half of that taken from the military and half from domestic spending. Wright even waded deep into foreign policy, conducting his own diplomacy with the Central American presidents, to make sure that the Arias peace formula was supported by Congress and not undercut by hawks in the Reagan White House.

Wright's downfall in 1989 in a hail of relatively petty corruption left the congressional Democrats with contradictory lessons. On the one hand, Wrighf s stance paid dividends for both the party and the Congress as an institution. Just before the beginning of his downfall, Republican House Whip Newt Gingrich, Wright's nemesis, told John Barry, author of an investigative biography of Wright, "If Wright survives this ethics thing, he may become the greatest Speaker since Henry Clay." The actual corruption -- profiting from inflated book royalties on vanity books that had been peddled wholesale to interest groups; having his wife take a salary from a Texas developer who arguably benefited from his access to the Speaker; going to bat for a few Texas savings and loan executives -- was relatively minor league. But his transgressions did give the opposition just enough dirt to destroy him. On the other hand, had Wright not been so fiercely partisan, so pro-cedurally Machiavellian, the Republicans -- Newt Gingrich in particular -- would not have gone after him with such animus. Had he not been such a tyrant within the Democratic caucus, usurping power from the committee chairmen, more Democrats might have fought harder to save him.

* * *

Wright's downfall meant a reversion of power to the committee barons and less ideological coherence. The House Ways and Means Chairman, Dan Rostenkowski, a longtime rival of Wright who had wanted the speakership himself, was intermittently playing footsie with the administration. Rostenkowski was the leading House sponsor of the 1986 tax reform, an ideologically ambiguous measure that succeeded in closing loopholes and raising taxes on business at the terrible price of sacrificing the principle of tax progressivity. In between his two heroic performances, as 1986 champion of tax simplification and 1990 sponsor of raising taxes on the rich, Rostenkowski on more than one occasion let himself be the vehicle to break the Democrats' fragile solidarity in opposition to capital gains tax cuts. Were it not for Rosty's periodic equivocation, it is hard to imagine that Bush and Darman would have seriously expected to ram a capital gains cut through Congress. "Rosty is a true schizophrenic," says one close observer. "He has good Democratic roots and instincts, but he spends a lot of time on the golf course with millionaires. Both aspects play a role."

Rostenkowski's Senate counterpart, Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, was another intermittent Trojan Horse. Though seemingly born again as a relatively progressive "national Democrat" as Michael Dukakis's 1988 running mate, Bentsen remained fairly conservative on money issues, eager to cut deals that included a capital gains cut or special tax breaks for Texas oilmen. In this respect, both the parochialism and ideological diversity of key congressional Democrats has compounded the task of functioning as a coherent opposition.

Varieties of Degradation
In distinguishing the several sources of Democratic weakness, one needs to disentangle the different forms of corruption -- the personal, the ideological, and the conjugal. Jim Wright's corruption was mostly personal -- using his office for minor financial gain. For the most part, it was not ideological. Peddling collections of speeches did not make him any less progressive a Democrat. More insidious was the profound ideological corruption that resulted from the imperatives of campaign finance. The more Democrats relied on the largesse of business PACs, the more they tended to shade their progressive politics. The savings and loan scandal was only the most extreme case. Republicans, at least, believed in deregulation as a matter of ideological conviction. Too many Democrats supported it only because the S&L lobby helped to finance their campaigns. Moreover, if you spent enough time with high rollers rather than voters, they became the reference group that informed your view of the world.

Tony Coelho, the man who raised to a high art the bartering of access to liberal incumbents in exchange for conservative PAC contributions, combined both forms of corruption. Coelho's brand of corruption was the more ideologically corrosive. As Wright's floor leader, Coelho functioned as a tactically tough partisan Democrat, rounding up votes for the leadership, convinced that his fund-raising deals had not compromised his own basic values. But Coelho, too, resigned ignominiously, a step ahead of an ethics investigation, over -- what else? -- a savings and loan deal.

An even more subtle form of degradation is simply the ongoing corruption of shared government. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, shared power corrupts in a way that is barely perceived. 'Tor a lot of these guys," says a longtime aide to a liberal senator, "life really isn't so bad. They get to govern, kind of. They don't get to set an ideological agenda, but within mainstream assumptions, they have a lot of authority. They can put their stamp, in part, on dean air, child care, and other good things. One of the consequences is that it blunts your ability to engage in combat; all the legislative incentives are to compromise, and to blur basic differences of principle." Thus, chronic incumbency undermines political democracy in two distinct respects. Inside Congress, it makes the ostensible opposition party a long-term partner of the governing party. Outside, it denies voters a sense of meaningful choice -- my congressman will be reelected anyway, so why vote? -- and discourages participation.

On balance Wright's partisanship was good for the Democrats. But in 1989, as he fell from power, his personal corruption, heavy gavel, and partisan scheming seemed all of a piece -- a wheeler-dealer style that was bad for the reputation of the Congress and bad for the image of the party. His Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia, was not criticized as a wheeler-dealer, merely as a relatively ineffective anachronism.

* * *

To many Democrats, the team of Tom Foley of Washington State, who succeeded Wright, and George Mitchell of Maine, who succeeded Byrd, was the perfect antidote. According to Dave Obey, a leader of House liberals, who opposed the current leadership on the budget compromise, "Having someone of Foley's temperament was very important to the institution. People don't realize how close this place was to blowing apart." Courtly, far less of a populist, courteous almost to a fault, Foley reverted to the traditional role of a speaker almost above party. "He attributes to others his own decency," says a member who has worked closely with him, putting a criticism kindly. "Tom comes by his parliamentary caution honestly," says another member. "His own politics tend to be quite moderate." He won election in a traditionally Republican farm seat in eastern Washington State, which he held with barely 51 percent of the vote in the 1980 Reagan landslide.

"Foley and Panetta try to deal with the Congress the way they deal with their own districts," says a liberal aide not associated with the leadership. "From the beginning of their careers, their survival has depended on attracting local Republican votes by minimizing their Democratic party affiliation. But in the present national environment, that's the worst thing you can do. You have to have a banner. You can't win by persuading voters that you are personally brighter or more decent. You can only win by convincing voters that you are part of a party that has values and priorities different from the other party's. These guys have never practiced that kind of politics; they're uncomfortable with it. But it's more important than ever. Our party system, without a lot of people appreciating it, has evolved into a national system."

Mitchell also seemed perfect. Where Byrd seemed an old-fashioned inside player evocative of another era, Mitchell, although reliably liberal, was modem, articulate, and telegenic. A former federal judge and a genuinely nice man, he seemed anything but a wheeler-dealer. Mitchell also had a substantive interest in policy, having offered a full programmatic blueprint in 1988 that was largely ignored by the press.

War of the Newt
Yet the new leadership team did abysmally throughout the 1990 budget wars, until rescued by the clumsy miscalculations of Messrs. Sununu, Darman, and Gingrich. All the contradictions of the Democratic opposition party role were epitomized in the 1990 budget episode. As long as George Bush could insist on "no new taxes," the Democrats seemed stymied. Though tax-the-rich ultimately proved superior politics to soak-the-middle class, don't-tax-anybody clearly trumped both positions. As the economy softened and foreign lending to finance the deficit dried up in early 1990, Bush at last relented. Yet the Democrats remained boxed in, contining to resist a genuinely populist program.

The summit conference at Andrews Air Force Base was an epic case of divide-and-rule. As the budget package took shape, the administration demanded that nearly all the concessions come from the Democratic side: no increases in income tax rates, regressive excise taxes, paralyzing cuts in Medicare, trivial military reductions, and, to add insult to injury, a capital gains tax cut. At several points, Darman and Sununu called negotiations to a halt over the capital gains impasse. At times, the relative accom-modationists in the Democratic leadership -- Bentsen, Foley, Panetta, Ros-tenkowski -- sided with the administration. 'It was really the administration and the House leadership against the liberals," recalls one liberal back-bencher. Remarkably enough, the most steadfast partisan Democrat throughout was Bobby Byrd, a moderate senator, yet old enough to remember a time when Democrats behaved like Democrats. On behalf of the Democratic Leadership Council, Executive Director Alvin From, on the eve of the historic vote, contributed a New York Times op-ed piece urging passage for the responsible good of the nation. Mercifully, Sununu, Darman, and Gingrich snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory -- Sununu by refusing to budge on capital gains, Gingrich by leading a Republican defection over tax hikes. "If they hadn't overreached," says George Mitchell, "we would have passed a far more Republican bill."

Only when the first budget went down did Rostenkowski see his opening and come forward with a new bill, raising top rates. And even that was watered down somewhat by the Senate before finally passing both Houses on October 28. It remains to be seen whether the congressional party can build on this windfall victory, which was less the result of their own cohesion than of Republican disarray. "There was real bitterness at Foley," says one senior legislator, even the beginning of talk that someone else should run for speaker.

House in Order?
What does the future portend? The budget win reminded congressional Democrats that economic populism is popular. The discouraging fact is that they backed into this realization. Foley continues to view himself as speaker of all the House, not as a Wright-style partisan. And Mitchell, though more partisan, is constrained by the fact mat his job is to find sixty votes, not to define a dean Democratic position.

The budget win, however, did have the salutary effect of laying to rest, hopefully once and for all, the wony that by playing partisan hardball in defense of party principle, Democrats would make the institution look bad. Congress-bashing, so fashionable of late, has always been partly a canard, and a highly calculated one at that. After all, the one institution Republicans have been unable to capture during the 1980s was the Democratic House -- "The People's House" -- the branch of government closest to the voters. Not surprisingly, the ideological high strategists of Reaganism -- the think tanks, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, Gingrich's Conservative Opportunity Society -- have kept up a relentless drumbeat of attacks on the institution. (If you can't wash the dishes, break the dishes.) Congress, in this story, was a tyranny of incumbency, a swamp of special interest politics and personal scandal, a tax-and-spend machine unable to keep to a schedule or to set priorities. These charges drew some blood; they did make the congressional Democrats hypersensitive to the concern that failure to strike a budget deal would bring discredit on them. It also primed the press to treat voter anti-incumbent outrage as the big story of the mid-term election.

To understand the dynamics of Democratic paralysis, it is essential to distinguish the real institutional flaws in the Congress from the ones purely trumped up by Gingrich and the right-wing brain trust. In its Summer 1990 issue, The Public Interest published a virtual compendium of the conservative indictment of the Congress. Political scientist James L. Payne depicted Congress as "brainwashing" interest groups to demand more spending. Journalist Fred Barnes drew a lurid portrait of "Congressional Despots, Then and Now." Gary McDowell, a law professor, took Congress to task for fomenting judicial activism. The Wall Street Journal's prolific Gordon Crovitz railed against Congress for micro-managing foreign policy. Others indicted it for its oversight of regulatory agencies and the Pentagon. In this medley of criticism, The Public Interest graciously included one token moderate, Norman Ornstein, and a token liberal, Nelson Polsby, both political scientists. And, to this reader at least, the Polsby and Ornstein pieces blew the rest away.

Ornstein accused conservative Congress-bashers of "situational Constitutionalism." After all, what were good conservatives doing attacking the most representative branch of government? Ornstein also demolished statistically the permanent incumbency claim. If Democrats were really hiding behind the shield of incumbency, the voters would stampede to Republicans when seats opened up. But in the past decade Democrats have won more open seats than have Republicans. Ornstein also obliterated the claim that Democrats have more seats by dint of gerrymandering.

Polsby, in a delightful essay titled "Congress-bashing for Beginners," recalled the liberal critique of Congress in the 1940s and again in the 1960s as deadlocking democracy. He wrote acidly, "What liberal critics of Congress needed was not constitutional reform. What they needed was the 89th Congress [1965-67]... .What Bush needs isn't a weakened Congress so much as a Republican Congress." Polsby also challenged the currently popular ideas of a line-item veto and a limit on terms as radical attacks on the separation of powers. As Polsby and other critics of term limitation have observed, limiting tenure of service would give more power to unelected permanent staffs and to unelected lobbyists. It would encourage congressmen to incur IOUs while in office to be cashed in that much sooner. Even so, term limitation would not necessarily weaken the Democratic hold on the House, since Democrats keep winning most of the open seats.

Still, the phenomenon of the "vanishing marginal seat" is a genuine problem, for it denies more and more voters a meaningful electoral choice. But if we truly want more competitive races (rather than merely more Republican members), public financing of elections -- leveling the playing field -- is a far better way to engender true partisan competition than such artificial gimmicks as term limitation. Getting private money out of politics would finally break the back of both kinds of corruption -- the venal and the ideological. Campaign finance reform would be far better for the democracy, and for the Democrats.

Republicans, however, are continuing to escalate their attack on the institution itself. The 1990 election was widely advertised as a coming repudiation of incumbents, presumably Democratic ones. The belated emergence of a real axis of economic cleavage -- Republicans as protectors of the rich, Democrats as guardians of the middle class -- saved the party from that fate. In the event, Republican incumbents suffered a great deal more at the hands of the voters than their Democratic colleagues. According to Congressional Quarterly, the average reelected Democratic incumbent received 3 percentage points less than his 1988 vote; the average reelected Republican incumbent lost 8 percentage points. Of formerly Democratic open seats, Democrats held ten of ten; of open seats previously held by Republicans, the GOP lost six of seventeen.

Arise, Ye Prisoners of Cohabitation
Even with more cohesion and bolder ideological aspirations, the Democrats will be constrained for at least three years by the deficit and the deficit-reduction agreement. The deficit has proved to be Ronald Reagan's time-release poison pill, his most lethal legacy. And although in 1990 the Democrats won the battle for greater tax fairness, Darman may have bested them on the fine print of spending limitation. Under the deal, defense and domestic spending are capped, separately, until 1994. No money cut from defense can be redirected to discretionary domestic spending. Darman thereby managed to lock away any peace dividend for three years. However, one big loophole remains. Congress can expand entitlement programs, though only on a pay-as-you-go basis. Without violating the plan, for example, Congress could slap a surtax on millionaires and target the revenue for child care. This is an invitation for Democrats to think big, or not at all.

Will they? Admittedly, for good constitutional reasons, Congress is a less than ideal bastion from which to mount an opposition program. "It's an interesting commentary that we are thought of as the opposition party," says George Mitchell. "After all, there are more Democratic congressmen, senators, governors, state legislators, mayors, local elected officials, but we're considered the opposition solely because we don't control the White House. In a television age, the presidency has become the government."

* * *

Yet the other Democratic bastions are similarly compromised. Most Democratic governors are tangled in state-level fiscal knots. The Democratic National Committee (DNC), under Ron Brown, has been doing a far better than average job of offering a coherent Democratic program. Brown has also met regularly with the House Democratic Caucus, and on more than one occasion helped restrain a stampede to support a capital gains cut. Still, the DNC, compared to its Republican counterpart, remains chronically strapped for funds and is thus less of an institutional player.

Normally, an opposition philosophy is also defined by its elder statesmen. On this front, the Democrats are more bereft than usual. Most of the New Dealers are now deceased; the last survivors are in their seventies or older. Veterans of the Carter administration include many Democrats of the scuttle-to-the-center school, such as Stuart Eizenstat, Charles Schultze, and Robert Strauss, who think budget discipline is paramount, big spending got the Democrats in trouble, and equity has to be sacrificed to growth. These are voices of neoliberalism, if not conservatism.

Another reservoir of statesmen is former presidents and presidential candidates. These, unfortunately, are now famous mainly for calamitous defeats. And, although party philosophy may be defined in new presidential candidacies, the candidates first have an understandable need for product differentiation. Once nominated, they appeal for unity but along the way they are typically a force for division rather than cohesion.

For better or for worse, the congressional party must define what Democrats are all about. Paradoxically, by being clearer about what the party stands for, congressional Democrats make the Congress look better, not worse, as they did when Congress rescued the budget and Social Security, and began salutary debates on Vietnam, Watergate, the Persian Gulf, and such popular domestic issues as universal health insurance and child care.

The Democrats are not virgins, but for the moment they have climbed out of the presidential bed. They should stay out. It is, of course, far better to dwell in connubial bliss with a president of the same persuasion, and far easier to define a coherent ideology from the White House. But, first, a Democrat has to get there. That journey is still arduous, yet more likely to be successful if the party knows where it is going.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement