I’m traveling for work this week and totally booked in meetings, so my blogging is going to be very light.
But I wanted to flag John Aravosis’s post from earlier today, “The GOP had at most 55 Senators during Bush’s presidency.” Aravosis is providing an important reminder that legislation, even controversial legislation or legislation relating to life and death, war and peace, can be passed in the absence of a super majority. Obama and Reid are dealing with more seats in their caucus than Bush ever had.
What the GOP lacked in numbers, they made up for in backbone, cunning and leadership. Say what you will about George Bush, he wasn’t afraid of a fight. If anything, the Bush administration, and the Republicans in Congress, seemed to relish taking on Democrats, and seeing just how far they could get Democratic members of Congress to cave on their promises and their principles. Hell, even Senator Barack Obama, who once famously promised to lead a filibuster against the FISA domestic eavesdropping bill, suddenly changed his mind and actually voted for the legislation. Such is the power of a president and a congressional leadership with balls and smarts.
How did they do it? Bush was willing to use his bully pulpit to create an environment in which the opposition party feared taking him on, feared challenging his agenda, lest they be seen as unpatriotic and extreme. By going public, early and often, with his beliefs, Bush was able to fracture the Democratic opposition (and any potential dissent in his own party) and forestall any effort to mount a filibuster against the most important items in his agenda.
It’s not about the votes, people. It’s about leadership. The current occupant of the White House doesn’t like to fight, and the leadership in Congress has never been as good at their jobs, at marshaling their own party, as the Republicans were when they were in the majority. The President is supposed to rally the country, effectively putting pressure on opposition members of Congress to sit down and shut up. And the congressional leadership is supposed to rally its members to hold the line, and get the 51 votes necessary for passing legislation in a climate where the minority is too afraid to use the filibuster. When you have a President who is constitutionally, or intellectually, unable to stand for anything, and a congressional leadership that, rather than disciplining its own members and forging ahead with its own agenda, cedes legislative authority to a president who refuses to lead, you have a recipe for exactly what happened last night. Weakness, chaos, and failure.
This is a pretty brutal assessment. But the difference is stark. Bush showed unflinching conviction that his agenda was the right course and he made damned sure Congress was with him, at least during his first term. Obama has not forced or led Congress to be where he needs.
Of course, this also gets at the Democrats’ fundamental inability to use procedure to their advantage. We got whipped under Bush and now are getting beat at a game in which the same rules apply. We just never used the rules we had to strengthen the minority when we were in the minority. As a result, looking at 2000-2009, there is a real contrast to what counts in the Senate. It only takes 51 votes to pass a piece of Republican legislation, while it takes 60 votes to pass a piece of liberal legislation. Because their leaders know how to play the game and our leaders want to rise above the game in glorious, yet unattainable, post-partisan unity.
There is plenty to put at the feet of Obama and Reid in the failures of the health care fight. But many of these problems are more systemic. It’s not that Aravosis is wrong, it’s that he’s talking about a dynamic that extends to liberal Democrats going all the way back to the early 20th century efforts to pass civil rights legislation. The left has always been out-maneuvered in the Senate and now is no different.
Actually, the difference is now Democrats are in a position that should assure them victory with even the most minimally savvy legislative plan of attack. This strategy has not been found. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a simple lack of understanding of legislative procedure, a lack of understanding of the real situation in a caucus that includes Lieberman, Lincoln, Landrieu, and Ben Nelson, an absence of actual liberal beliefs by Obama, or a refusal to lead with conviction by Obama.
The result is that despite massive electoral victories in 2006 and 2008, the Democratic Party has miles upon miles to go before they will defeat the ghosts of incompetence past and the insidious damage a lack of memory inflicts upon their efforts today.