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April 22, 2006

Gavels versus Votes

by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math

August J. Pollak thinks the Sierra Club made the right call in endorsing Lincoln Chafee, pointing out that he has a high-quality record on the environment, and that it's not the job of the Sierra Club to join Markos and his band of merry activists in their quest to build a long-term Democratic coalition, of which the environmental movement is only a part. Pollak's evidence rests on Chafee's generally solid voting record on the environment, as befits a Northeast Republican. The problem with this analysis is that Chafee's voting record doesn't matter as much as one would think.

We live in an era of complete partisan polarization; every Democrat is more liberal than every Republican, except during the two years when Ben Nelson and Lincoln Chafee have to run for reelection (which is what is happening this year). In an era of one-party control under such circumstances, the substance of what bills come to the floor becomes more important than votes on particular bills. Under Majority Leader Frist, Speaker Hastert, and President Bush there will simply not be any progress on the environmental front. In this respect, Markos is certainly correct. Assuming Matt Brown or Sheldon Whitehouse would vote for Majority leader Reid, the Sierra Club would almost certainly see more progress on their pet issues with a Democratic majority.

This is Markos's major point. As long as NARAL, the Sierra Club, and other issue groups work within the Republican majority, they will only be playing defense, preventing the worst bills from reaching the President's desk. With a Democratic majority, choice & environmental groups, along with civil rights activists and the Human Rights Campaign, could finally play offense for once, forcing moderate Republicans to vote with them or face electoral defeat, and wedge President Bush into many a difficult situation.

Having said all that, there may be a specific case for environmental groups endorsing Chafee, if only to prevent environmental apocalypse. As a member of the Environment & Public Works Committee, Chafee killed the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" initiative in 2005, and he was the only Republican vote to prevent backdooring ANWR drilling through the defense budget (Frist voted "nay" so he could bring the bill back later on). Since Republicans may control the Senate in 2007, having Chafee's "no" vote on the Environment & Public Works committee may still be necessary to keep further Republican pollution off the table. NARAL, on the other hand, has no excuse, and could have stayed neutral in the Senate race. Chafee has demonstrated no willingness to push back against reactionary activist judges.

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Comments

With a Democratic majority, choice & environmental groups, along with civil rights activists and the Human Rights Campaign, could finally play offense for once, forcing moderate Republicans to vote with them or face electoral defeat, and wedge President Bush into many a difficult situation.

That sounds like wishful thinking, as long as Landrieu, Baucus, and the Nelsons are part of any Democratic majority. The last time Bush faced a Democratic-controlled Senate, I don't recall those issues receiving much attention. I do recall the Patriot Act being passed, and a resolution to authorize war against Iraq emerging from the body. In any event, since the Dems need six seats to capture the Senate, and only five GOP seats are in play this election (OH, RI, PA, MT, and MO), the whole thing seems moot.

Posted by: Steve Smith | Apr 22, 2006 12:47:30 PM

Steve, I'd recommend you take a look at the whole debate about the New Parliamentarians over at TPMCafe and elsewhere. After seeing GOP partisanship and strong-arm tactics over the last couple years, a Democratic Senate majority might look different than in the past. Mark Schmitt has been wary of this, but he's starting to think it might actually be a good thing. I'm guessing that you would approve even more than Schmitt does.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 22, 2006 12:54:38 PM

I think the Sierra Club endorsement of Chafee (and the earlier endorsement of Lieberman by NARAL) is that they made the endorsements before the primary elections - when they could have waited to see the results of those elections, which could result in even more friendly candidates for their positions

On balance, the special interest groups have lost their clout largely because they think their positions are more important than political control of the House and Senate. They are not only way too shortsighted in the current climate, but they hurt their own influence longer term. Today's politics is the politics of what can be made into law by majority solidarity, with very rare exceptions.

NARAL and Sierra Club will come to regret their early endorsements for 06 candidates. They are playing by 1990 rules in a post-2000 game which has almost no bi-partisanship in Congress.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 22, 2006 1:07:52 PM

Nice polite Republicans are an important part -- perhaps even a majority -- of the membership of many pressure groups whose policy interests would be better served by a Democratic Congress.

Do you vote your interests, or your revenue stream?

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Apr 22, 2006 1:38:34 PM

Again, it seems that the only people who don't think that bipartisanship is a stupid joke are progressives.

Another aspect of this, I believe, is the way in which special interest groups are able to influence elections and government policy in other nations, specifically those with a parliamentary system. In such a system, it is perfectly possible to have a small party devoted entirely to one side of one issue and still be influential, since this type of system is governed by a ruling coalition. So the Greens and and Social Democrats and the National Alliance for the Distribution of Meerkat Scent to Rose Gardens (NADMSRG) all come together, and before you know it the lovely odor of meerkat wafts from every rosebush in the country, even though they only got 3 seats in the last election.

So in that system, you either endorse candidates that agree with your group's position no matter their affiliation, or more likely, you establish your own little party, and it tends to work out pretty well.

But we of course don't have that system. Chafee could be more liberal than Ted Kennedy or even Michael Moore(!), but as long as he casts a vote for the leadership of some throwback who makes sure progressive legislation is shunted aside in favor of restricting women's rights and enriching the wealthy at the poor's expense, it just doesn't matter.

I can understand those who believe in doctrinal purity and who want to never compromise on that. But I would think that after the last several years, just having a Congress that is not actively seeking to destroy everything that NARAL and the Sierra Club have accomplished would be good enough for a while.

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 22, 2006 1:38:34 PM

I guess that's a way to put it, but I wasn't suggesting SC made the "right call" as much as I was noting how kos was being very duplicitous and bullying in his attempt to smear the SC's decision. As you also noted, Kos pulled quite possibly the one single instance possible to "prove" Chafee had a bad record on the environment. Making the case for the benefits of a Democratic majority is one thing; lying about your opponent is another.

Kos' insistence that stopping the Republican majority overrides the desires of interest groups seems, dare I say it, a rather Nader-ish stance on policy. Pushing a Dem over Chafee was "the most impoprtant thing." Pushing Casey over a pro-choice candidate was "the most important thing." And now, like NARAL, the guys at the Sierra Club are "morons." If all these groups are as stupid and useless to the debate as kos frames them why does he spend so much time bitching when they don't agree with him?

Once again, the Sierra Club's job is to elect environmentalists; the DNC's job is to elect Democrats. If the former's pitch from the latter is in the tone of kos' comments I fail to see that many checkbooks opening.

Posted by: August J. Pollak | Apr 22, 2006 1:44:20 PM

I don't see how Kos' stance is "Nader-ish." Seems rather to be the polar opposite, unless you are referring to the single-mindedness with which these differing groups pursue their agenda.

Kos seems to think that the progressive interest groups are shooting themselves for the sake of doctrinal purity. I agree with this. Doctrinal purity feels good, but these groups need to be reminded that their purpose is not to make their members feel good about themselves.

I understand those who feel that there isn't much of a track record of effective Democratic leadership lately. But we do have a track record of what Congress has been doing with the GOP in charge, and it doesn't seem like shining lights such as Chafee are accomplishing a whole lot. If the Sierra Club is more concerned with protecting the environment than their self-esteem, they need to reevaluate the criteria for endorsement.

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 22, 2006 2:18:08 PM

Once again, the Sierra Club's job is to elect environmentalists; the DNC's job is to elect Democrats. If the former's pitch from the latter is in the tone of kos' comments I fail to see that many checkbooks opening.

The Sierra's Club job is to push pro-environment legislation & regulation, which at this point would be much, much better served with a Democratic majority than a Republican majority. Specifically in the case of Chafee, it's not like Sheldon Whitehouse or Matt Brown would be voting to gut the EPA or supporting the MTBE litigation shield. And since Whitehouse or Brown would be a vote for a Democratic majority, the SC would be better off with Whitehouse or Brown holding the seat than Chafee (modulo the risk-averse tactic of forcing Chafee to owe his re-election to SC and therefore killing bad, bad, legislation & regulation in the E&PW committee). They don't have to endorse Whitehouse or Brown; they can simply remain neutral or dual endorse. This is what's happening with NARAL/PPFA in the Casey-Santorum race. Even NOW's tactic of making a primary endorsement of Alan Sandals and then sitting out the general would work as well.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Apr 22, 2006 3:01:38 PM

That sounds like wishful thinking, as long as Landrieu, Baucus, and the Nelsons are part of any Democratic majority. The last time Bush faced a Democratic-controlled Senate, I don't recall those issues receiving much attention.

At the very least, we would get a vote on a minimum wage increase, and perhaps on gays-in-the-military as well. We'd also probably see some sort of mandate that agencies EPA actually do its job.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Apr 22, 2006 3:21:10 PM

It's not a matter of doctrinal purity. Markos' point is utterly pragmatic. Chafee will vote for Frist or whatever scum oozes to the top to replace Frist for Majority Leader. A Democrat in Chafee's place will vote for Reid. Chafee could vote for every single pro-environment bill to emerge in his committees and to the floor of the Senate and not make up the political damage of his vote for Majority Leader.

Posted by: NBarnes | Apr 23, 2006 2:07:26 AM

Nick, I argued over on Gristmill that while NARAL's endorsement of Chafee was unambiguously moronic, the Sierra Club's was less so:

http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2006/4/21/131024/740

This is true mainly because the environment is less entrenched as a strictly partisan issue than abortion. There are signs that the Republican party could get behind some basic environmental sanity, and I think it makes sense for the Sierra Club to encourage that process (which, I'll admit, is just taking its first baby steps).

Gristmill readers were not convinced, to say the least.

Posted by: David Roberts | Apr 23, 2006 2:49:41 PM

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Posted by: peterwei | Oct 22, 2007 8:19:11 AM

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