Comment: Party Poopers

Not long ago, the Democrats were taking comfort from their five-seat gain in
the Senate and their 50-50 tie. But the Senate, it's now clear, is far from truly
tied.

On the John Ashcroft confirmation vote, Republicans held all their troops and
eight Democrats defected, four of them northern liberals. On the outrageous vote
to scrap new safety standards on ergonomics, six Senate Democrats crossed the
aisle. In the House, 16 Democrats joined 207 Republicans. If the Democrats had
voted as a bloc, they might have held the line.

These defecting Democrats are a series of concentric circles. At the center
are two southern nominal Democrats who might as well be Republicans, John Breaux
of Louisiana and Zell Miller of Georgia. Radiating out are Democrats from fairly
conservative states who face tight re-elections (Max Baucus of Montana, Blanche
Lincoln of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana), or Democrats not in re-election
trouble but with close ties to business (Fritz Hollings of South Carolina). These
six worthies voted to repeal the worker safety standard.

It gets worse. On the recent change in the bankruptcy laws, lobbied hard by
the banking, credit-card, and auto industries, more than a dozen Senate
Democrats defected. On one emblematic amendment, giving relief to people
bankrupted by medical bills, Democrats voting with Republicans to deny relief
were not just the usual suspects but such sometime liberals as Joseph Biden of
Delaware, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Dianne Feinstein of California, Jeff
Bingaman of New Mexico, and even the party's great dark-horse hope, John Edwards
of North Carolina. The defectors are a blend of principled moderates, people in
swing states, and shills for organized business. In all, 34 brave Democrats
voted to hold the line and give a break to people whose illnesses bankrupt
them. And as usual, the Republicans had perfect party unity.

This fearful asymmetry between the parties happened in three waves. Twenty
years ago, before Ronald Reagan, there were independent souls in both parties.
The last generation of Republican senators included liberals like Javits of New
York, Case of New Jersey, Mathias of Maryland, Weicker of Connecticut, Brooke of
Massachusetts, Cooper of Kentucky, Packwood and Hatfield of Oregon, and honorable
mavericks like Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. They broke ranks all the time. They
were balanced on the Democratic side by a dozen out-and-out racists like Stennis
and Eastland of Mississippi.

But with Reagan came greater party unity on the Republican side. After Bill
Clinton was first elected president, the Republican minority in Congress felt
robbed, angry, and united. Then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole sought to block
everything Clinton offered. He managed almost total party unity, often picking
up enough faithless Democrats--who were not well treated by Clinton--to prevail.
Then in 1994, when Republicans took both houses, Newt Gingrich brilliantly used
the Contract with America to turn the House Republican majority into a
parliamentary caucus. The Contract was not only a Republican Party manifesto but
a party loyalty oath. Moderate Republicans were disciplined both by the threat of
losing campaign funding and by facing right-wing primary opponents.

Nothing comparable has been achieved by the Democrats. On the contrary, the
House Blue Dog caucus, 33 mostly southern and border state Democrats, are extreme
fiscal conservatives. They are currently feeling wounded that Bush, despite their
eagerness to work with him, doesn't really need their votes. The Democratic
Leadership Council faction splinters off a few dozen more who believe the
Democrats need to move in a centrist direction.

Some Democrats take (premature) comfort from the expectation that a few
Republican senators will oppose the tax bill. A bipartisan proposal backed by
moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine and centrist Democrat Evan Bayh of
Indiana would impose a "trigger" mechanism on the tax cut: If the surplus proves
to be smaller than expected because of slower economic growth, the tax cut will
be reduced. But this is weak tea as well as perverse economics. If the economy
tanks, that's just when we'll need a bigger tax cut.

Even if enacted, this trigger doesn't change the fundamental shape of the Bush
tax-and-budget policy--huge tax cuts tilted upward, no significant money for
social spending (except for modest increases in education). The endgame will be
appeasement of the Republican moderates by trimming the overall cut, making it
slightly less awful distributively, and preserving a shred of the estate tax.
And then every Republican senator will dutifully fall in line, aided by the usual
Democratic suspects of Breaux, Miller, et al.

So what's a party to do?

During the mid-1980s, before he became a press agent for the Clintons, Sidney
Blumenthal proposed what he called a "Northern Strategy." Let the turncoats go,
he argued, and rebuild the Democrats as a fighting progressive party largely
outside the white South.

Face it: If the Dems are going to lose every party-line vote anyway because of
defections in their own ranks, the real Democrats might as well behave like a
real opposition. Trimming their views to pander to the least loyal of their own
troops is a losing game and a spurious unity. Instead, the 35 to 40 Democratic
senators who are good liberals, and their 150 counterparts in the House, should
fashion a true progressive opposition program and take it to the country in 2002
and 2004. Maybe they should hire Gingrich as a consultant.

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