Exile-Loving Democrats

The Democratic Party is starting to enjoy its wilderness years.

Something is stirring among Democrats, and I don’t like it. They’re starting to enjoy their minority status.

I don’t dispute that some sort of adjustment had to be made. Since 1995, when Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in more than 40 years, congressional Democrats have had to reconcile themselves to their minority status. Something similar has happened in the Senate, which since 1995 (excepting a brief interruption from 2001 to 2003) has also been controlled by the GOP. The Democrats’ presidential wing made a parallel accommodation after 1969, at the start of the current era of Republican presidential dominance (interrupted only by Jimmy Carter’s one term and Bill Clinton’s two). In all three instances, Democrats have had to get used to the idea that they are not the majority party in America—at least as tallied in the somewhat nonrepresentative Electoral College and U.S. Senate and in the heavily gerrymandered House.

But lately, it seems to me, Democrats have done a little more than reconcile themselves or get used to minority status. They’ve started to groove on it. Signs of this transformation are everywhere:

  • Late last month Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the highest-ranking Democrat in that body, pronounced that it would be a “miracle” if the Democrats won back the Senate next year. Such prophesies tend to be self-fulfilling, and surely Reid knows that. Can it be that Reid doesn’t care? Might it be that Reid prefers it that way? After all, when you’re in the minority, you don’t have to behave responsibly—you can just be a blowhard.

  • Around the same time, President Bush made a significant concession on Social Security reform by redirecting future benefit increases away from wealthy and middle-class recipients and toward low-income recipients. The Bush plan is way too stingy—as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has noted, the average worker would face a cut in anticipated benefits equal to 10 percent of his preretirement income. If Bush could be persuaded to restrict benefit increases to the wealthy even further, or eliminate them entirely, the plan wouldn’t have to rely so much on restricting benefit increases to the middle class. (Another option would be to lift the cap on income subject to the Social Security tax, which the president actually considered doing for awhile.)

But stingy or not, Bush’s Social Security plan embraced the liberal principle that, in distributing governmental largesse, more should go to the poor and less should go to the rich. In that respect, what Bush proposed resembled at least the first rough draft of a solution that the Democrats are likely to propose should they ever regain the House, the Senate, or the presidency. You would think, therefore, that the Democrats would declare Bush’s proposal a good starting point for discussion. But they didn’t. Won’t the Democrats have made it awkward for themselves when they finally do get a chance to propose a similar reform? Yes. But this is the sort of scenario one envisions only when one anticipates that the Democrats will regain the majority. In embracing rather than merely accepting their minority status, Democrats have freed themselves from that worry.

  • The Democrats are going to the mattresses over the Republican plan to disallow filibusters against judicial nominees. The intransigence seems to be mainly on the Republican side, but as I’ve noted before, the interests of the Democratic Party (not to mention little-d democracy) would be best served if the filibuster were disallowed for all legislation. That’s because someday the Democrats will be in power again, and they will want to pass legislation enabling a muscular federal government to solve, or at least address, the country’s problems. In grooving on the filibuster, Democrats show that they are unwilling to consider any such future.

Students of special-interest politics will observe that the Democratic Party is essentially mimicking a strategy pioneered by many of its constituent parts. Starting in the 1980s, the party’s various “identity politics” subgroups mostly gave up on actually trying to pass national legislation in favor of carving out smaller fiefdoms over which they could enjoy greater control. Either they redirected their activism to the state or local level, or they gave up on influencing government altogether and focused on extracting concessions from private corporations. (Jesse Jackson is the acknowledged master of this last tactic.)

What’s shocking about this new Democratic enthusiasm for retreat is that it is being expressed not on narrow special-interest issues, but on broad issues affecting the entire Democratic constituency: regaining a Senate majority, redistributing Social Security benefits, democratizing Senate procedures. It might be argued that the Democrats are merely imitating the winning strategy the Republicans used to regain the House in 1994: Spurn the glad-handing incremental victories favored by Newt Gingrich’s predecessor as House Republican leader, Bob Michel, and instead propagandize your way to political victory. But congressional Democrats differ from congressional Republicans in three crucial ways. First, the Republicans, in becoming obstructionists, didn’t change their positions on the issues, as Democrats are doing. Second, the Democrats haven’t been shut out for many decades, as the House Republicans had been when they announced they were fed up with accommodation. The Democrats’ obstructionism comes off seeming petulant and unearned. Third, Democrats, unlike Republicans, actually want to achieve something. Governmental paralysis, practically by definition, is agreeable to conservatives, but it’s anathema to liberals, at least in the long run. Or rather, it should be.

I never thought I’d see the day when preservation of the filibuster became a grass-roots liberal cause, but that day seems to have arrived. College students are staging mock filibusters at universities across the country. Once upon a time, student activists decried the immorality of the Vietnam War and U.S. investment in the apartheid regime in South Africa. Their protests helped change the world. Today student activists are defending a parliamentary rule that enabled southern bigots to block civil rights legislation for nearly a century! They’re defending demosclerosis! They’re defending the right of the minority to thwart the will of the majority! Oh sure, it all has something to do with bad judicial nominations, too. But the street theater isn’t about bad judges. It’s about Robert’s Rules of Order.

Count me out.