Strange Bedfellow

Suffer the Democrats

They aren’t ready to retake Congress: They haven’t suffered enough.

So we’re going to have a contest after all. Not for president–no pundit honestly thinks a surprise is likely there. The horse race that’s been declared is for control of Congress. Nearly all the prognosticators failed to predict the Republican triumph in 1994. Now they are saying Bill Clinton’s coattails might just be long enough for the Democrats to ride back into power. The Democratic National Committee is raising millions per week on the promise to liberate the nation from the reign of Gingrich. Republicans, more creatively, are trying to frighten small children with the supposedly terrifying specter of “Speaker Gephardt.”

Well, it could happen. But there’s good reason to hope it doesn’t, whether you are a Democrat, a progressive, or even president of the United States. The reasons to be alarmed about the return of the Democrats aren’t those put forward by Bob Dole and Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour, who have been warning of a return to the liberal Dark Ages, circa George McGovern. A Restoration Democratic Congress almost certainly would not try to pass comprehensive health-care reform, cut the defense budget in half, or raise taxes. As Barbour might say, even a dog learns not to stick its nose in the campfire a second time.

The real reason to worry about Democrats retaking Congress is that after two years out of power, they have begun to reconsider their approach to government–but they’ve only just begun. The danger is that instead of returning to power as spirited reform liberals, the Democrats would govern as a devious, dispirited version of their old selves. And paradoxically, they will have a more productive two years if they don’t win than if they do. Assuming that President Clinton is re-elected, a divided government would be able to accomplish more of what Democrats want than if they controlled both elected branches.

The political model for a Restoration Democratic Congress wouldn’t be Ted Kennedy, the corpulent Massachusetts senator. It would be Henry Waxman, the tiny congressman from Los Angeles. The Kennedy model was New Deal liberalism: Raise money through taxation to pay for ambitious federal programs. The Waxman model, deployed when he chaired the health subcommittee of Energy and Commerce, is administrative liberalism: Try to accomplish the same social goals covertly through regulation and mandates. In the 1980s, while Kennedy was still arguing for nationalized health care, paid for by a payroll tax, Waxman was trying to create universal coverage through the back door, by expanding Medicaid eligibility and requiring states to provide ever more extensive benefits. The mandates Waxman buried in various appropriation bills produced a malfunctioning system that was resented by governors of both parties as its costs escalated and the number of uninsured Americans continued to rise. Kennedy’s was a legitimate alternative, democratically rejected; Waxman’s approach (which has finally become Kennedy’s as well) was to quietly foist more government on an uncomprehending electorate.

Blocked by the present political mood from acting in a direct, sensible way to create government programs where they are needed, Democrats would be tempted to operate Waxman-style, in an inefficient, subterranean way. Take welfare reform. The bill Clinton signed this summer is deficient principally because it would cut poor people off even if they couldn’t find jobs. It could, however, be made into a reasonable scheme by adding a public-sector jobs program that would offer employment in the last resort for those who are willing to work but are (frankly) unemployable in the private sector. But–afraid of spending for the underclass–a Democratic Congress might find it easier to tinker with regulations to prevent states from cutting welfare recipients off at the end of their supposed time limits. This would undermine reform rather than fixing it. With a nominally Republican Congress, though, President Clinton might be able to drum up bipartisan support to pass a humane modification in the form of a jobs program.

Why should that be? We saw how it worked during Clinton’s first term. In his first two years, when Clinton had a Democratic congressional majority, Republicans were truculent and obstructionist. It soon dawned on them that any accomplishments benefited the party in power. As GOP strategist William Kristol argued in his famous health-care memo, Republicans were politically better off blocking everything than compromising. But in the last two years, with a Republican Congress, the incentives have been reversed. Newt Gingrich tried ruling by non-negotiable demand and ended up with Republican congressional candidates denying any knowledge of his existence. He and his party learned the hard way that they were better off cooperating with Democrats on things the country wants, and trying to share the credit–hence the recent flurry of legislation passed with bipartisan support: welfare reform, health-care portability, and the minimum-wage increase. In fact, a Democratic Congress would probably mean less opportunity for Clinton to pass legislation of any kind.

If Republicans retain a majority, both parties will be denied their grander schemes. But President Clinton might win a few more increments of health-care reform, improvements in the welfare bill, the kind of tax cut he wants, and maybe even some sort of entitlement reform. The balanced budget will continue to get closer. If Democrats recover a majority, Republicans will have every incentive to block everything once again. And with a superslim majority, instead of a 30-seat one, Democrats will be even weaker. There won’t be any one-vote budget victories. Conservatives would jeer from the sidelines, demanding big tax cuts and no longer spelling out–as they admirably did last year–how such cuts would be paid for. Cheap Republican partisanship would bring out the worst in the Democrats, encouraging more symbolic “therapeutic legislation” (see my colleague Jack Shafer’s “Flame Posies” column) and demagoguery intended to keep old people in a Republican-hating frenzy.

It is said that suffering is good for the soul, and so it has been for the Democrats. When I went to see Dick Gephardt a few weeks ago, he was saying all the right things about how his party had been lazy and undisciplined, throwing programs at problems without worrying about results. He was touting his “Families First” agenda, a kind of Democratic Contract With America, which he developed with the Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. It includes sensible, small-scale proposals such as requiring health-insurance companies to offer kids-only policies. These are modest steps, but not falsely modest ones, like some of President Clinton’s recent Dick Morris-inspired micro-ideas (e.g., school uniforms). Those aren’t incremental government–they’re infinitesimal government.

B >ut Gephardt’s admirable evolution may be interrupted if he runs for president in 2000. The prospect of a party primary will drag him back to the left. And Gephardt has yet to bring around most of the old Democratic barons: the Obeys, the Boniors, the Dingells. These guys still aren’t into small stuff. They’ve made clear that the balanced budget will be the first thing out the window if they get their old chairs back. The next thing to go would be the rules restraining the power of committee chairs, perhaps the only truly good deed of the Gingrich Congress. For the old bulls, a November victory would prove that 1994 was a meaningless blip, that there was nothing wrong with the Democrats after all.

They may have suffered, but they haven’t suffered enough.