Thursday, November 08, 2007

Congressional Democrats: Cynical Manipulators, not Spineless Cowards

Enough with the Congressional Democrats are weak meme already. Enough of this idea that Democrats cave to the slightest pressure from the GOP. Really--enough. It may be comforting to progressive bloggers to say that our leaders are weak and all will be well when we've replaced them or given them spine transplants. That would be a pleasant fiction. But it's about as far from the truth as Mike Gravel is from the presidency.

It's time to put that tired piece of conventional wisdom to rest--if for no other reason than so that we can address the real root of the problem and stop tilting at windmills.

I've said it before. Other diarists before me have said it better than I. When we vent about the unwillingness of our elected officials to stand up to the Republicans on everything from Iraq to telecom amnesty to subpoena enforcement to Executive Branch nominations to impeachment inquiries, we are barking up the wrong tree to call our Democrats "weak." "Capitulating", certainly. But not "weak."

Conventional wisdom says that our Dems are so afraid of their own shadows that they wouldn't dare risk letting Republicans slander them as weak on terrorism or inadequately patriotic. Conventional wisdom says that our Dems are too worried about the next election to stand up for the principles they believe in. Conventional wisdom says that our Dems have bought into the DLC line that this is a conservative country, and that only by running as conservative lite can they stay ahead of the game. Conventional wisdom says that our Dems are so poll-driven and focus group tested that authentic progressivism never shines forth to inspire the public.


Let's be clear on something: our Democrats are perfectly well capable of standing up to Republicans--and even to the American people--when they damn well feel like it.

Exhibit A: Gay Rights. Even though the "Democrats Support Gays" angle is one of the few tactics the GOP have been able to play against Democrats with any sort of continued success, our House Dens were more than brave enough to pass an anti-discrimination bill protecting gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination. Certainly, this is a wonderful development for a long oppressed minority, for civil rights, and for the American Constitution. And yet, if Democrats were able to do this on such a contentious issue where the polling, while improving, is still marginal at best, why not on other issues like Iraq or healthcare where the polling is so much clearer?

Exhibit B: Illegal Immigration. Even though the GOP had limited electoral success this year playing the anti-immigrant card, the polling on this issue remains abysmal for Democrats. Whipped up by nativist media elements from Lou Dobbs to Pat Buchanan to every Republican racist hack with a deep fear of any skin color darker than porcelain, the American public is deeply anti-immigrant at this time. And yet, Democrats are somehow finding the spine and courage to promote (or at least hem and haw about) giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants--despite polls showing that 3 out of 4 Americans disapprove of the idea. During the major war over immigration earlier this year in which Congressional Republicans eventually caved to pressure from their base, Democrats were more than willing to take the unpopular position of so-called "amnesty."

The same goes for affirmative action programs, which have mixed support with the American public. And certainly, Democrats have no difficulty standing up and opposing the majority of Americans who want more progressive policies ranging from healthcare to foreign policy.

So what's the difference? Why do Democrats seem able to show such courage on some issues, but not on others? Why in god's name does Hillary Clinton find it easier to consider giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants than to promise universal health coverage for all Americans? Why in the world does Barack Obama find it easier to support gay rights than to support the speedy drawdown of American forces in Iraq? Why in all hell does Dianne Feinstein have no trouble supporting the difficult issue of abortion rights, but cannot find the will to oppose the simple issue of the Mukasey nomination--even though her next election is years away and no one will even remember or care what she did on Mukasey come 2010?

The answer is simple: they're not poll-driven cowards; they're cynical electioneering manipulators. Perhaps they're right to be; perhaps it's the best way when all is said and done. Perhaps the end of electoral victory justifies the means of cynical accommodation and capitulation in the short term. Who knows? But weak and cowardly they aren't.

The awful truth is that--all references to "do-nothing Congresses" aside--when the people are upset (and make no mistake: the people are plenty upset right now), they tend to blame those who hold the power. They don't tend to blame those who are--or at least seem to be--powerless. When the people want change they lash out at whoever appears to be in charge, pretty much regardless of who they are. When the people think the the country's on the wrong track, they're pretty much certain to throw out whoever looks like they're conducting the train.

In fact, to act at all in such a way that would demonstrate they have real power, would be to take responsibility for the absolute mess this country is currently in--from housing troubles to currency collapses to global warming issues to foreign policy disasters to a host of other troubles.

On the other hand, to fan the flames of public resentment against the current holders of power for perceived wrongs is nothing short of electoral gold. Republicans were brilliant about doing this for years in their role as a minority opposition party: they would successfully trash Democrats while offering no coherent solutions of their own beyond a culture of "I've got mine; screw you." It was only when forced to actually attempt to govern that Republicans ended up sowing the seeds of their own demise.

An important and utterly perverse corollary of these two premises is that, so long as we have an unpopular Republican president and a Democratic legislature, the Executive must be seen as overwhelmingly powerful compared to the Legislative for Democrats to win. So long as the public believes that Bush is driving the train and the Democrats are itching but unable to get into the driver's seat, the public will be so angry by November 2008 that they will toss Bush and anyone associated with him out of the driver's seat and put Democrats in charge. Thus, so long as Democrats keep their eye on electoral victory rather than on their oath of office, Article I of the Constitution is doomed to near irrelevance if not extinction.

Indeed, the only way (to the congressional mindset) to screw things up for electoral victory in '08 would be, ironically, to act and exercise their authority rather than to complain. Why defund the Occupation of Iraq and risk having the voters turn their scorn on you when/if things go badly, when you can simply fume impotently about the President's Iraq policy and keep the focus on him, instead? Why risk taking real action on healthcare and making people upset about whatever transition pains may take place, when you can simply get people riled up about their HMOs? Why impeach the Vice-President and risk focusing the spotlight on yourself, when it's so much easier to rage with feigned indignation at Cheney's latest abuse of power?

After all, as far as the Congressional mindset is concerned, the only mistake Congressional Republicans made during the Clinton years was actually going through with stalling the budget and impeaching Clinton, thereby making the election more about Gingrich than Clinton. Never mind that Clinton was more popular and a better politician and policy-maker than Gingrich: to your average strategist, the problem was that Gingrich became an issue at all.

And let's be clear: to defund the Occupation of Iraq or impeach the President shows that you have power. To promote equal rights for all couples or affirmative action programs shows that you care for the Constitution at best, or are pandering to specific demographics at worst.

The Democrats have no difficulty standing up to Republicans and public opinion to do the latter, but they have major issues doing the former.

They're not weak; they just want to win. Their strategy is to act as weak and helpless as possible so that the other guy takes the fall for the current and coming disasters.

And until we realize that that's what is going on, our exhortations to stand stronger against Republican depredations will continue to fall on deaf ears attuned not the needs of the American people, but rather to a concerted strategy aimed at 2008 victories through the path of least resistance.



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