Comment: Outward Bound

The last time the Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the presidency for a full two-year term was 48 years ago, in the years 1953-54. Dwight Eisenhower was president. Ike, however, was a bipartisan sort of Republican who worked closely with Democrats in Congress. Among other un-Republican achievements, he gave us the Warren Supreme Court.

If the Republicans take Congress, George W. Bush will make far more partisan use of his majority. As we go to press, Democratic control of the House looks increasingly unlikely, and the Senate is balanced on the razor's edge. The net loss of a single Senate seat would leave both houses once again controlled by Republicans -- with the Supreme Court poised to become even more Republican than it already is.

This page has often been critical of how the Democrats have played their opposition role. Recently, to compete with President Bush's "economic summit" in Waco, Texas, the Democrats held their own economic session in Washington. The Democratic event mainly challenged Bush to balance the federal budget. A few days later, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt called for a $200 billion economic-stimulus package. With this kind of mixed message, it's hardly surprising that the Democrats aren't getting much traction on pocketbook issues.

Yet having the Senate in Democratic hands has made a difference. After some initial dithering, the Democrats have been able to block some of the administration's worst judicial appointments. They used their Senate committee chairmanships to toughen legislation on corporate reform, to tone down administration plans to make the welfare system even nastier, to keep the proposed Department of Homeland Security from being a union-busting affair and to spotlight failures in the war on terrorism that the White House would prefer to cover up. Even though fewer than half of Senate Democrats (21 of 50) voted against President Bush's war resolution, if war does come it will receive far less scrutiny should the Republicans control both houses of Congress.

It's worth recalling that the Republicans were a kind of permanent congressional minority party for fully 26 years, from 1955 to 1981. For much of that period they were a me-too party, letting Democrats set the agenda and offering slightly weaker versions of Democratic proposals on education, health care, and consumer and environmental protections. The Republican recovery began, paradoxically, with Barry Goldwater's overwhelming defeat in 1964. By the time they took the Senate in the 1981 Reagan landslide, however, Republicans did so as a reborn, self-confidently conservative party, having used their years out of power to fashion both a more coherent ideology and a political seriousness. The Gingrich revolution of 1994 and the George W. Bush-Karl Rove alliance with the hard right only intensified that process. Today, liberal or moderate Republicans are a rarity.

By contrast, though congressional Democrats have been out of power about half the time since 1980, no comparable process of rehabilitation has occurred. While the Republicans have become more philosophically unified and more politically tough-minded, Democrats are fragmented on domestic as well as foreign policy. There are, for example, Democrats who want to delay the Bush tax cut to balance the budget, Democrats who want to delay it to finance social spending, Democrats who'd rather not talk about it and Democrats who voted for it. Some want the party to move left, others to become more Republican. The New Democrats have made serious inroads in both the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, but the labor wing of the Party provides most of the Democrats' ground troops. The money may be increasingly corporate but the party base remains liberal.

It was Ralph Nader who suggested that perhaps the Democratic Party needed the shock of a period out of power -- a "cold shower," Nader called it. In many respects the Democrats are already deep in the political wilderness. But so far, this partisan version of an Outward Bound trek is not doing the job. Far from liberating the Democrats to be a more vigorous opposition, losing power has made them qualify their core convictions.

When George W. Bush took office as a minority president, most of his critics underrated him; few expected him to be such a politically tough, ideologically driven partisan. As an individual, however, Bush remains rather feckless. What makes Bush's toughness possible is that he is building on more than two decades of the Republicans' success at clearly defining what their party stands for. It's this success, not Republican ideology, that is worth emulating.

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