Democrats and the Politics of Failure

What a difference a year makes. Last year, when Congress adjourned for the holiday break, triumphant Democrats, still basking in the glow of their November victories could not wait to get back to town to take on President Bush.

Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi declared then: "Democrats are prepared to govern and ready to lead." She suggested that the president would find out very quickly how much the elections had upended his world: "He will walk into a new place, where America's families' issues will have been addressed even before the State of the Union."

But despite all the evidence of global warming, this December has not been quite as warm for Democrats as last; the storyline trailing them as they head home for the holiday break is that, once again, for what seems like the gazillionth time, they have capitulated to the White House on important priorities: They voted more money for the Iraq War this week; they allowed Michael Mukasey to be confirmed as attorney general even though he was ambivalent on the issue of torture; the illegal warrantless wiretapping continues, and nothing they have done has had any perceptible impact on ending the war in Iraq. They have lost dozens of votes on Iraq from cutting funding to lengthening leave time for soldiers. So despite the tough political climate in which President Bush finds himself?he has a 28 percent approval rating in some public polls?he has consistently been portrayed as the winner while Democrats continue to wear the loser tag.

In recent days, one story after another has built on the now familiar theme:"Democrats Bow to Bush's Demands in House Spending Bill," declared The Washington Post. From CQ: "Senate Republicans Keep Democrats Off Balance." "Dems Cave On Spending," screamed another headline in The Hill.

And rather than responding to allegations of ineffectiveness, Democrats offer instead a long checklist of accomplishments: a minimum-wage increase, ethics reform, implementation of 9-11 Commission recommendations, a good chunk of the appropriation bills done, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

There is the even longer list of things they say would have gotten done, had Republicans not gotten in their way. The truth is, both lists are paltry, but it's also true there was little more that Democrats could hope for. Congress, particularly the Senate, was designed to frustrate quick or easy maneuvers; the power is with the dissenters, and Republican senators have used it to full advantage. I think that Democrats have put up a good fight and have nothing to apologize for. If they are guilty of anything, it is of their willingness to take the long view, and the political hit, rather than just allow everything to grind to a halt. The suggestion that Reid should just let the Republicans filibuster ignores the responsibility Democrats have to keep the government functioning. They have to be aware, however, that their voters may not be quite so understanding or forgiving.

This week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid conceded in a roundabout way that the Republican minority may leave the most permanent stamp on the 110th Congress: "As ? the first year of the 110th Congress winds down, there is no doubt that if we continue in the current direction, this will be known as the Congress of Republican obstruction," Reid said in a statement. "What we?re seeing this year from Republicans is not ordinary obstruction. It?s obstruction on steroids."

But the "Bush Wins--Dems Weak" theme has been building like Ravel's Boléro throughout the year, beginning with Bush's veto of the first supplemental spending bill in the spring, through a record number of GOP filibusters in the Senate, to the president's second veto this week of an expanded State Children's Health Insurance program.

But while Democrats will spend a lot of time next year trying to figure out how to deal with the lame duck president, his congressional allies, and a GOP nominee (hard as it is to imagine one at this point), it is the dissension in their own ranks that may cause them the most heartache.

The liberal blogs are ablaze with rage at congressional Democrats, and the solid party unity that sustained the Democrats during the days in the minority wilderness has quickly begun to dissolve. In the recent budget battle House Appropriations Chairman David Obey essentially labeled his Senate colleagues traitors.

"I can tell you when bills will move and you can tell me when the Senate will sell us out," he told The Wall Street Journal.

Reid has also been confessing his inner feminist in mildly distancing himself from Pelosi. "I can't control Speaker Pelosi. She is a strong independent woman," he said on the Senate floor last week. "She runs the House with an iron hand."

But it is the disappointed Democratic base that poses the greatest danger to Democrats next year. If the anger of 2006 turns into frustration in 2008, some of those voters will stay home, and that is hardly something Democrats can afford.

"Democrats Need To Admit They Have A Problem: They Are Addicted to Backing Down," was how Arianna Huffington headlined her blog post earlier this week.

And then there are the women of Code Pink. While they do not represent the most reasonable voices in the debate, the anti-war activists, whose tactics on the Hill promise to become more disruptive over time, are beginning to echo the frustrations of many more Democrats who last November thought they had won not only an election but a war as well.

Founded by and made up mostly of women, Code Pink has been especially critical of Pelosi, and now the group's leaders are talking about establishing an independent tax-exempt group to target unsatisfactory Democrats in 2008.

"We felt betrayed by the very people we helped to put into office," said founder Medea Benjamin, in a meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. "We have a particular break with the leadership of the Democratic Party."

This is not what Democrats want. If more that just the Code Pink fringe of the Democratic Party is feeling betrayed, next fall it will be a very cold winter indeed.