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October 22, 2007

When Bad Things Happen To Inept Congressional Majorities

Brian Beutler digs into the unpleasant, but very necessary, task of figuring out how much the Democrats sucked last week. The short answer is a whole goddamn lot. The why of it is interesting, though:

It's a real disappointment, I think, that the Republicans in both chambers have either a better understanding of parliamentary procedure or a greater willingness to use it to their advantage. I'm not a student of modern Republican political history, but I'd speculate that this comes from their 40 year absence from Congress in the mid-to-late 20th century, and the revolutionary spirit with which they regained power in the 1990s--basically, that, as an energized movement, they come to the Hill everyday intending to win.

It seems to me that by the end of the 109th Congress, Democrats had become a much stronger opposition party than they were only a few years beforehand. But they were still learning when they became the majority party and I still get the sense that they still somehow have no idea how impressive the machine they're up against really is.

We're also finding out just how much power an obstinate executive really wields when he doesn't care about his own popularity and has no successor whose political fortunes he must protect. Bush may not be able to push anything even resembling an affirmative agenda forward, but he's proven able to block just about everything the Democrats have sought to pass.

October 22, 2007 | Permalink


Bush may not be able to push anything even resembling an affirmative agenda forward,

Excuse me? On a few fairly important issues, he has--notably the surge, extended funding for the Iraq war, and now telecom immunity. He shouldn't be able to do this, and the fact that he has says nothing about "obstinate executives" in general but quite a bit about the Democratic leadership.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Oct 22, 2007 2:03:12 PM

"We're also finding out just how much power an obstinate executive really wields when he doesn't care about his own popularity and has no successor whose political fortunes he must protect."

Another weakness the Democratic party has of yet to learn to exploit. Rudy Ghouliani is the successor and was designated so when his good buddy Mukasey was nominated for AG.

Posted by: Frederick | Oct 22, 2007 2:10:30 PM

The bigger impact is surely the end to which the maneuverings is directed. The Republicans appear to have all but conceded the WH in 2008. All their efforts are directed at supporting the current administration's line however unpopular.

The Democrats know that the surest way to win their battles is to win the WH.

There really is no playbook for this situation. It is the start of the fourth quarter and the GOP is way behind. But all they seem to want to do is to keep possession of the ball and run out the clock.

Posted by: PHB | Oct 22, 2007 2:10:34 PM

We're also finding out just how much power an obstinate executive really wields when he doesn't care about his own popularity and has no successor whose political fortunes he must protect.

i think this is a good case for what's wrong with the status quo vis a vis the i-word. with the only constitutional provision to protect against abuses from such an executive effectively (if not literally) 'off the table', the potential for damage is basically infinite. what is there that prevents the president from doing something so egregious it would embarrass even Stalin?

also, suppose the president were still popular and in a lame duck position. with impeachment having been demoted from a constitutional act to a political one, such a president has effectively limitless power and could even suspend elections. might this have been the intention for impeaching Bill Clinton all along?

Posted by: Cody | Oct 22, 2007 2:34:33 PM

As Antid Oto points out in his/her post above, the real issue is the Democratic majority's shocking complicity in Bush's program. The idea that Democrats are somehow not learned in parliamentary procedures doesn't cut it.

Why do the Democrats play along? Because they're real aim is to enlarge their majorities in the next congress and, since the GOP seems to be imploding on its own, the Dems see no reason to stick their necks out for civil liberties, Iraq withdrawal or anything else.

The Democrats are happy with the status quo because as things stand now, their electoral prospects look good. They will only really push for resoundingly popular and non-controversial legislation like the SCHIP expansion.

Posted by: Adrian | Oct 22, 2007 2:42:37 PM

Really? It's the Repubs' superb grasp of parliamentary tactics that got Southwick out of committee? That forced the Dems to vote to condemn MoveOn? That persuaded Pelosi to make a big deal of the Armenian genocide and then back down? That led Rockefeller and Reid to cave on retroactive immunity for the telcoms? That forced Clinton and others to vote to call the Iranian Army a terrorist organization? That will lead the Judiciary Committee to vote in favor of an Attorney General who believes that the President is King?

Over and over again, they cave, they do their corporate contributors' bidding, they cower in fear of being accused of being soft on terror. They have contempt for their own constituents - Pelosi managed to spit on political activists, poor people, and the First Amendment all in one sentence - and they fear only the media. They suck. Don't make excuses for them.

Posted by: Bloix | Oct 22, 2007 3:03:21 PM

...they come to the Hill everyday intending to win.

Game. Set. Match.

We've got a majority in the House that's still prancing around fighting according to gentlemen's rules instead of reaching down and digging their heels in against the minority and the White House.

What kills me about this is that it's not like the Congressional Democratic leadership has to fight for affirmative action, against prayer in school or for increasing taxes on the middle class.

A majority of Americans want Congress to fight for CHIP. A majority of Americans want Congress to get us the hell out of Iraq, even by budgetary means. A majority of Americans want Congress to step up and protect the Constitution by opposing warrantless wiretapping.

These are no-brainers. These are popular, progressive pieces of legislation that should be fought for and, in the case of Iraq and CHIP, whose failed veto overrides should be hung around the necks of every Republican from President Quarter all the way down to your local Republicans. Make them defend their anti-family, pro-quagmire, Constitution-hating stances at every turn.


In short, we've got one side fighting to win every day (Republicans) and one side fighting to appear not to lose (Democrats).

Is it any wonder the American public is so easily drawn into thinking the Democrats are a bunch of sissies who won't stand for anything?

Posted by: Patrick | Oct 22, 2007 3:10:02 PM

I'm kind of frustrated by the leftosphere's blaming Democrats for failure to override the S-CHIP veto, especially when its accompanied by zero evidence beyond the assumption that they COULD HAVE converted anybody.

It seems to me that a GOP Congressman in bed with insurance companies, big business, etc. and loathe to expand any social program is a "tough sell", whether or not his district is threatened. (What makes people think the Democrats WON'T threaten these people with S-CHIP in '08? Tsongas certainly used S-CHIP against her opponent.). The mere fact that the Democrats converted zero GOPers to vote for S-CHIP could very well be evidence that the GOPers simply won't budge on the issue- not that Democrats have been playing nice. In which case it isn't that Democrats "suck"- it's that GOP Congressmen "suck", and will defend Bush to their electoral detriment.

Think of it this way: Let's say I'm trying to convince you to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet. But you've already eaten lunch, you hate buffets, and you don't really like me, either. So there are three big reasons I can't convince you. Does my inability to convince you mean that I "suck"? Or just that there isn't a lot I can do to twist your arm because of the reasons you oppose going to the buffet?

The Democrats peeled 40-something votes from the GOP. They kept all but two Democrats in the "yay" column. And yet the liberal blogs, seeing that the Democrats couldn't get 13 more votes from a party that is constitutionally opposed to social spending and favorably disposed to insurance companies (to put it mildly), assert this as evidence that the Democratic leadership must "suck".

No- it's the GOP that "sucks". The Democrats did what they could, and will use this vote to beat the hell out of the GOP in '08. I don't get the self-loathing, here, and I haven't seen any ACTUAL evidence that the Democrats didn't try to pressure these people...

Posted by: P | Oct 22, 2007 3:25:19 PM

P: For what it's worth, I don't think the Democrats could have done much more with S-CHIP. Their failures are in other areas.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Oct 22, 2007 3:35:14 PM

the could have made a lot more noise about which republicans opposed it. they could've repeatedly sent the same bill to the president and made each republican that voted against overturning the veto a pariah. they could've gone on tv at least half as much as the republicans have to defend the bill. in short, they could've done a lot more than they did on S-CHIP, but they chose not to because they fear the republican media machine, rightly or wrongly.

Posted by: Cody | Oct 22, 2007 3:54:01 PM

Antid Oto-

Right. Exactly. If people want to kick the Democrats around for the "telecom immunity" thing, by all means do so- I'll help. Or Iraq funding. Those are legit. gripes.

But Beutler's article, and a lot of the "Democrats are ineffective" stuff that I read last week is about S-CHIP. Go look at some of the titles to leftosphere blog posts about S-CHIP. "House FAILS to Override S-CHIP veto". Things like that. No- the House didn't FAIL to override the veto, but rather the GOP BLOCKED health care for children. See the difference? One puts the blame erroneously on the Democratic majority who held together and pried away 40-something votes for the S-CHIP bill, and one puts the blame PRECISELY where it lies: GOP Congressmen who loathe social spending and are shills for the insurance industry.

Criticize Democrats when they genuinely screw up. I do all the time. But the S-CHIP thing is an argument FOR the Democrats: more Democrats would've meant more S-CHIP votes, rather than an instance of the Democrats screwing it up...

Posted by: P | Oct 22, 2007 3:54:41 PM

let's also not forget that this is the same republican party (and almost all the same members even) that attempted to make parliamentary procedures to block certain bills the greatest moral sin a minorty party could ever undertake. but the democrats have all but proceduralized republican obstructionism, making it as painless as possible for republicans to kill a bill and never face reprisals from their constituents.

Posted by: Cody | Oct 22, 2007 3:57:31 PM

I used to subscribe to the theory that Bush's affirmative agenda was dead in the water, but the Democrats are having a hell of a time not granting retroactive legal immunity and carte blanche wiretapping powers in the FISA bill. The Dems can't even drag their feet very well.

Posted by: Anthony Damiani | Oct 22, 2007 4:15:38 PM

I thnk the exchange here only underlines the fact that Democrat rank and file are frustrated and not sure really who to blame. In the absence of a clear enemy, I think it's natural that people blamne leaders in Congress, but I'm not sure that's wentirely fair even now. As people point out, it's hard to blame Democrats for what's happened on S-CHIP, given that the version Democrats want is likely to pass with veto-proof majorities on the next try. On things related to Iraq, more than one person has pointed out that military command decisions favor the executive over the legislative branch, so it's hard to know how "take a stand" is supposed to be implemented. And on things like FISA, there remains a palpable fear of additional terroprist events on the part of people that can be easily exploited. Am I frustrated with Pelosi Reid et al? Yes, at times. But I still think the way to channel that frustration is to work for larger Democratic majorities and a Democrat as President. And to remember that if someone is the bad actor here, it's Bush, in nearly every instance.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 22, 2007 4:45:14 PM

Addressing the purported imbalance in knowledge of parliamentary procedure, and the bullshit that can be done with it, should take about a week and a dozen interns or low-level researchers. There is no fucking excuse for being outplayed on rubric. And there is a modern ten-year playbook on how to crush minority dissent in the House: they should use it without reservation.

Bloix picks up a much more apposite point: Democrats can be peeled off when their state and personal interests kick in. The Delaware senators bend over for finance; the midwest ones must incline to corporate agriculture, etc.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Oct 22, 2007 4:52:20 PM

Why do the Democrats play along? Because they're real aim is to enlarge their majorities in the next congress and, since the GOP seems to be imploding on its own, the Dems see no reason to stick their necks out for civil liberties, Iraq withdrawal or anything else.

But god damn it, if they would stick their damned necks out for civil liberties and Iraq withdrawal, and do it like they mean it, they would become immensely popular and absolutely mop the floor with the repooplicans next year. I don't understand why they don't see it. Even if they lose the legislative/veto battles, if they would just make some noise and break some damned crockery they'd prepare the ground for a landslide.

The (major) presidential candidates aren't a lot better. Much as I admire John Edwards's putting economic inequality and health care at the center of his campaign, if he would display the same focus, eloquence, and passion on the subject of the occupation of Iraq and the crimes of the Bush administration (not just warrantless wiretaps, torture, for god's sake!) he could walk away with the nomination and carry forty states or more in the fall.

Posted by: Herschel | Oct 22, 2007 4:53:49 PM

Of course you are right Herschel....but Democrats see taking real stands as an unnecessary risk when their 2008 outlook already looks so good as it is. And good Lord, my spelling is awful!

Also I agree that Dems did all they could on SCHIP...but only because it was such a universally popular issue.

Posted by: Adrian | Oct 22, 2007 9:52:02 PM

oh great so Kerry was gutless because he didnt want to alienate people and lose.. and the current candidates are gutless because they want to look good when they win. My , thats just a solid bit leadership to look forward to there.

This is in part why I look to Obama instead of Hillary. ..she is so much more embedded in the status quo then he is. Very much the 'triangulation' politician much like her husband, she'll play the game very nicely. We'll see good shows and political battles, and again nothing will be done.

It seems that with Obama we may get a little more directed leadership.. he wont win all the battles, but at least the ones he takes on might have some more meaning then just a political byte on meet the press.

Posted by: david b | Oct 22, 2007 11:35:37 PM

I'm on the other side of the Atlantic, so my 2c may not be worth much (about 1/4 of a cent in your money, actually), but . . .

What ever happened to extraparliamentary action? You know, marches, demonstrations, people chaining themselves to railings and so on. That kind of thing is much more effective when you have supporters in Congress who can point to it and score points out of it. So far as I can see, such activities -- which I suspect could have been extremely popular especially for an issue like S-CHIP -- have been completely ignored by the Democrats.

If I'm not mistaken, this strongly suggests that, yes, they are collaborating with the corporate right. Which is about what I would expect, but then I'm a leftie.

Posted by: MFB | Oct 23, 2007 4:15:58 AM

Pretty theory. I'll put it on the top shelf with the others. We keep discussing the Democratic leadership as though they were a befuddled school girl who was suffering a bit of head trauma. Can we please stop talking about congressional Democratic in terms of their weakness and in terms of their ignorance? At what point do we recognize that these aren't the Keystone Cops we are dealing with here, but rather some of one of the most educated bodies on the planet. The explanation for the "ineffectual" Democratic leadership is not for a lack of know-how, or backbone. It is a lack of will. The Democratic leadership has no interest in dismantling the machine that Bush has built.

Reid is not even recognizing Dodd's hold, for pete's sake. Ah, the nuanced mechanics of parlimentary procedure!

Posted by: John Stephen Lewis | Oct 23, 2007 8:00:47 AM

The Democrats are perfectly cognizant of the ins and outs of congressional procedure. They just don't disagree with what Bush is doing.

I see numerous comments above along the lines of "Reid and Rockefeller didn't even succeed in blocking telecom immunity". Reid and Rockefeller are both pro-immunity. They have never tried to block it. They have tried actively, strongly, to promote it. Random liberal commenters (including Brian Beutler) are making the mistake of believing that the Democrats in Congress basically want the same things that they do, and are just somehow failing to achieve them. This is completely false. The Democrats in Congress agree with the majority of what George Bush does every day. The Democrats in Congress SUPPORT the Iraq war, indefinitely. The Democrats in Congress SUPPORT telecom immunity. The Democrats in Congress SUPPORT putting anti-abortion, anti-union, pro-business judges in the nation's courts. The Democrats in Congress actively oppose groups such as Moveon.org. And so on and so forth. These are their real, true beliefs.

If you don't like it, don't vote for them.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 23, 2007 9:15:04 AM

Even before the override vote, whether the Democrats got the votes or didn't, they were in a no-lose situation. Get the override, and you've got a positive, smart, middle-class-friendly, business-friendly (SCHIP is mostly privatized, folks; don't buy the GOP talking point that it's government, socialized healthcare) accomplishment on the Democrats' watch. Don't get the votes, and you get to hang the albatross around the GOP's neck that the President and Congressional Republicans took healthcare away from kids. Nothing sucky about that, as long as you look at the big picture.

Now, the telecom-retroactive-immunity deal, that sucked.

Posted by: Rick | Oct 23, 2007 9:48:40 AM

Yes, I think Anon and John Stephen are right. The problem with the Democrats is not that they lack the power to block an attorney general who openly declares his defiance of the law. It is not that they lack the power to oppose telecom immunity or to require individual warrants for wiretapping. It is not that they lack the power to pass a law re-instating habeas corpus protections. It is rather that they do not want to do these things, because they agree with the Bush administration on these issues. At least the Democratic leadership does, even if many individual Democrats may not.

So I guess I may still support individual Democrats who are on the right side of these issues. But I will have to go with a third-party candidate in the 2008 presidential election. It is simply unacceptable to vote for a presidential candidate from a party whose leadership is willing to confirm an attorney general who thinks that the president may break the law, and approves of torture.

Posted by: MC | Oct 23, 2007 11:58:18 AM

Tsongas certainly used S-CHIP against her opponent.

...and barely won, in a solid blue-collar dem district: largely because her opponent ran against illegals.

and a fresh-faced little GOP governor just won in LA.

make way for the bright young pretty fascism to come.

Posted by: anon | Oct 23, 2007 2:46:57 PM

and a fresh-faced little GOP governor just won in LA.

make way for the bright young pretty fascism to come.

You can thank Kathleen Blanco for Bobby Jindal.

Posted by: Patrick | Oct 23, 2007 6:11:45 PM

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