24-Hour Party People

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle made a revolutionary speech on the Senate floor last week. He didn't call on the president to resign or tell a senator to “fuck yourself,” as Vice President Dick Cheney suggested to Patrick Leahy on June 22. Instead, Daschle said senators should rise above their partisan differences and work together.

Daschle even outlined steps that Senate Democrats should take next year if they regain control of the chamber. They would, he said, deal in good faith with the executive branch; do the Senate's job with respect to the budget, oversight, and judicial nominees; respect the minority party; and “end the cycle of partisan retaliation.” He also said senators should spend more time with one another so that they can follow the example of former President Ronald Reagan and erstwhile House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who put aside their political differences and were friends after 6 p.m.

While Daschle's ideas would, if actualized, bring back some comity to the Senate, it's hard to see how they would work in today's political environment. Assume that Democrats once again have the majority in the Senate, but are not in control of either the House or the White House. It's naive to expect that Republicans would just make nice and try to work with Daschle -- after all, right now they're trying to kick him out of office. They would use every rule in a chamber that gives individual senators tremendous power to make life for the minority party difficult and obstruct their goals. “[T]he Founding Fathers deliberately designed this Senate to protect the rights of the minority,” Daschle said.

If you think Republicans would operate differently, think back to last week. On June 22 John Kerry was on Capitol Hill to vote on an amendment supporting veterans' rights. Senate Republicans, anxious to deny him the chance to support the bill, delayed the vote so that he missed it. Yet on the morning of June 23, the Senate delayed votes so that Republicans could finish up their round of golf at TPC Avenel. The GOP has turned the chamber into one that suits its members' partisan and personal goals. It's almost unthinkable that a bill like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which had the forward-thinking and well-intentioned support of a Democratic president and a Republican Senate leader, would pass today.

But we can't turn back the clock and return to a time when politicians could trust one another's word. As nice as that would be, the political system has been so poisoned by Bill Clinton's impeachment, the Florida recount, and George W. Bush's partisan tactics that it's unrealistic to hope to return to the days of Reagan and O'Neill. Democrats are simply setting themselves up for failure if they think otherwise.

Daschle was right in noting that “the result of all-or-nothing politics is too often nothing.” The two parties do need to be able to work together to get things done. Referring to the energy and prescription-drug bills, he said, “A closed meeting that is a conference committee in name only is no place to look for common ground.” If they have control of the Senate, Democrats should hold themselves to a higher standard than the ones Republicans have set in conference committees, because it's outright undemocratic to strip away representation of from half of the country's voters

While Daschle's suggestions to hold bipartisan leadership meetings every two months and bipartisan caucus meetings four times a year are good ones, he needs to realize that fuzzy words aren't going to replace hardball tactics overnight. It's been a decade since the Republicans declared a war on Congress with the Republican revolution and since Daschle assumed the title of Democratic leader. One of the reasons that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is so popular among her rank-and-file members is because she's adopted a tough line against Republicans -- and because she's realized that Democrats are tired of being the nice guys who lose. Daschle would do well to follow her example.

Of course, as Daschle pointed out, these ideas are merely academic. With the electorate split down the middle, no one knows which party will control Congress or the White House a year from now. And Daschle, eager to protect Democrats from charges of obstructionism, has little to lose by making a speech calling for the “politics of common ground.” But have no doubt that if Democrats do regain control, they'll invoke Daschle's speech and hold him to his word. Instead of making nicer politics, things could get very mean indeed.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.