Of the power of conservative Senate Democrats

For a group that is barely one month old, Evan Bayh’s centrist caucus has sure caused a lot of noise. For much of March, the Indiana Senator conducted a flurry of interviews to explain why it was important for conservative Democrats to reach out to Republican lawmakers to beat back liberal members of their own party. Yet, he stayed predictably true to center-right politicians’ deceptive habit of hiding their ideological goals behind seemingly innocent words like “pragmatic” and “efficient.” In answer to critics, Bayh shot back, “We literally have no agenda. How can they be threatened by a group that has taken no policy positions?”

Not only does that response make little sense (how would the caucus’s members have found each other?), it is also misleading. From the group’s very first days, its most prominent members have given voice to the same ideological outlook. They are fiscal conservatives who want to reduce deficits by cutting spending rather than by increasing taxes; they are skeptical of new governmental programs and of increased infrastructure spending; they have a pro-business and pro-free trade outlook.

Quite concretely, this ideological positioning has led Senators like Evan Bayh, Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad to take aim at White House priorities like cap-and-trade, health care reform, increased education spending, EFCA and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. (You would think that supporting the latter would be a minimal commitment required of Democratic lawmakers.) Other Senators like Claire McCaskill demonstrated their resistance to government spending during the stimulus debate. And at least 10 Democrats have voiced their opposition to passing health care and cap-and-trade through the reconciliation process, a maneuver many see as Obama’s only chance to pass the ambitious programs he has promised to implement.

More surprising was Harry Reid’s rush to defend a group that was at first interpreted as a blow to his authority. The Majority Leader contributed a quote to the group’s introductory press release. “New ventures like this group offer us a new opportunity to get things done and I support every effort that puts real solutions above political posturing,” he said. Later still, Reid chose to attack liberal groups who were criticizing the creation of the centrist caucus and Bayh’s attacks on progressive priorities. “I think it’s very unwise and not helpful. These groups should leave them alone,” he said. “It’s not helpful to me. It’s not helpful to the Democratic Caucus.”

Before becoming Majority Leader, Harry Reid was known as a moderate Senator, and it is possible that he would have been part of Bayh’s caucus had he not been part of the Democratic leadership. (The last time I wrote about Bayh’s group, I was only able to identify 12 other Senators: Landrieu, McCaskill, Lieberman, Lincoln, Pryor, Warner, Bill Nelson, Ben Nelson, Klobuchar, Shaheen, Casey and Begich. A recent NYT piece adds 5 names to the list: Tom Carper, Mark Udall, Michael Bennet, Kay Hagan and Herb Kohl. This is one of the first times Hagan has signaled she could cause trouble for progressive causes; Kohl’s presence helps explain why he is one of the Democratic hold-outs on EFCA.)

Not all of these 18 Senators will oppose liberal priorities at the same rate, of course. Yet, their early strength and their public criticism of cap-and-trade, of EFCA and of the reconciliation procedure serve as a reminder that the biggest obstacle to Obama’s agenda is to be found in the President’s own caucus. The White House has much more to fear from Democratic obstructionism than from the GOP’s opposition.

In a new article well worth reading, The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait warns that Democrats have an uncanny ability to “self-immolate.” He draws parallels between Obama’s first weeks and those of his two Democratic predecessors: the Senate’s conservative Democrats ruined Bill Clinton’s agenda in 1993-1994 and Jimmy Carter’s in 1976-1977. In both cases, a Democratic President was made to look ultra-leftist, inefficient and out-of-touch by members of his own party; this helped lead to the conservative resurgences of 1980 and 1994. He goes on:

Obama has come into office having won the popular vote by seven percentage points, along with a 79-seat edge in the House, a 17-seat edge in the Senate, and massive public demand for change. But it’s already clear he is receiving less, not more, deference from his own party [than Bush did]. Democrats have treated Obama with studied diffidence, both in their support for the substance of his agenda and (more importantly) their willingness to support it procedurally…

Even at this early date, the contrast between Democrats under Obama and Republicans under Bush is stark. Republicans did not denounce Bush for squandering a budget surplus to benefit the rich, the way Democrats now assail Obama for big spending and deficits. And Republicans did not refuse to use the budget procedures available to them to break through the Senate’s inherent lethargy. Republicans, in other words, acted like a parliamentary party…

The more Democrats defect, the more the president is defined as an extreme liberal, and the more ineffectual he seems as his agenda crashes upon the shoals… The hard truth for Democrats is that Obama’s popularity is bound to fall… The one factor within the Democrats’ control is whether their constituents see Obama as a strong leader taking action, like Roosevelt or Kennedy, or a floundering weakling, like Carter or first-term Clinton.

It is too early to theorize as to the consequences of Obama’s relationship with Senate Democrats. Yet, there is a clear risk that the window for progressive reform closes without any major changes having been implemented. If the White House fails to win approval for an overhaul of the health care system this year, when will that reform come about? If a significantly watered down version of EFCA is passed next fall, will Democrats bring back card-checks and binding arbitration in 2011, even if they gain a filibuster-proof majority?

As Chait points out, what is particularly frustrating for liberals is the Democrats’ failure to stand united when Bush was able to pass so many radically right-wing reforms with far smaller congressional majorities. In response to Chait’s frustration, Ezra Klein argues that the the contrast is not that clear: Republicans opposed the priorities of Bush’s first terms just as Democrats are opposing Obama’s; he points out that a number of Bush’s reforms were compromises with Democratic lawmakers rather than triumph of conservative ideology.

But there are two responses to this. For one, Democrats controlled Congress for much of Bush’s first two years in office - and they only fell to 49 seats after the 2002 midterms. Bush was forced to negotiate because he was in the minority - and he still managed to push the country to the right by a startling margin. Second, Klein’s argument only serves to show that Democrats were willing to support Bush’s proposals to an extent GOP Senators never considered helping Clinton - and we are talking about very controversial legislation like Bush’s tax cuts, bankruptcy reform, Medicare reform, the Iraq resolution.

Given that Democrats controlled 51 or 49 seats for all of Bush’s first term, it is remarkable that any of these reforms passed Congress without being watered down to a much greater degree. In other words, Bush’s first-term might suggest that the GOP also has difficulty passing its priorities without having them watered down, but I would argue that it first and foremost demonstrates that moderate Democrats are just as likely to boost a Republican President’s agenda as they are to obstruct a Democratic President’s priorities.

Chait proposes a number of fascinating theories to explain the Democrats’ lack of unity, particularly his contention that Democrats have “come of age under the old Democratic chieftains” while congressional Republicans have had to deal with being out of power for decades before 1994. He also offers a more traditional argument:

Taken as a whole, then, the influence of business and the rich unites Republicans and splits Democrats. A few Republicans no doubt felt some qualms about supporting Bush’s regressive, extreme pro-business agenda, but their most influential donors and constituents pushed them in the direction of partisan unity. Those same forces encourage Democrats to defect. That’s why Ben Nelson is fighting student-loan reform, coal-and oil-state Democrats are insisting that cap-and-trade legislation be subject to a filibuster, and Democrats everywhere are fretting about reducing tax deductions for the highest-earning 1 percent of the population.

The underlying point is that we should not confuse those who genuinely believe in third way policy solutions and those whose centrism derives from their ties to business interests, the donations they have received and the pressure from corporate lobbies. Someone is not necessarily well-intentioned just because his rhetoric sounds moderate; someone is not necessarily an expert on a subject just because he has bridged the gap between two extremes; and someone who pledges to protect buisiness interests is not automatically fiscally disciplined. (Chait’s detailed attack on Ben Nelson’s resistance to reforming the college loan system because “one of the lenders that benefits from federal overpayments is based in Lincoln, Nebraska” is particularly damning.)

3 Responses to “Of the power of conservative Senate Democrats”

  1. 1 MSW

    This is a great post, and it also points out one issue that hasn’t been addressed: Democrats are able to speak out against a Democratic administration without fear of retribution, while Republicans, for the most part, lived in fear of speaking out against the Bush administration because they knew that there would be dire consequences.

    I think it’s great that Bayh and other centrists are able to voice out their concerns about budget issues. Opening up lines of healthy discussion has been missing from the Senate for a long time. In addition, having the centrist faction exist gives other moderate Republicans some cover to actually vote for some strong legislation.

    The major risk is that communication lines break down between the centrist and the more liberal faction of the Democratic caucus.

  2. 2 Jaxx Raxor

    It’s important to know that the Democratic party is more ideologically diverse than the Republican party. In the 21st century, there are quite a few conservative Democrats and many moderates, while in the GOP liberals are almost non-existant and moderates are smaller in the GOP than in the Democratic Party. Also, the GOP is much more of a leadership oriented party and more displined when it comes to party line votes, while dissent is more acceptable among Democrats. That is why even moderates generally went along with Bush during the years in his administration where he was popular, they were overwhelmed by conservative pressure. In addition, when it comes to swing districts Republicans are more likely to be conservative than Democrats in swing districts, who may be more moderate. And of course it is much less likely for the their to be GOP representatives in clear Democratic leaning districts than vice-versa for Democrats.

    Therethore, any Democratic president (including a popular one) will have a hard time controlling thier party compared to a popular GOP president. In a way, for Obama to have such trouble could be helpful because he doesn’t just rush and make made decisions, and we know that the strong right polices that the GOP put through without question helped to drag them all down when Bush became very unpopular. Of course it is also possible that conservative Democrats could hurt the very party they are part of by critizing Obama’s polices as too liberal, but I seriously doubt the GOP would make more but minimal net gains in Congress and no chance of the GOP taking at least one chamber of Congress unless Obama suddenly becomes extremely unpopular, which is something I do not see as of now.

  3. 3 Guy

    I agree with MSW - discussion between groups and parties is how a democracy is meant to work and has worked in the past in the US.

    If the new “centrist” group does have 18 Democratic seantors then they are a major group with one third of the total number of Democratic senators. The Democrats have senators all over the country so they are likely to be diverse. For example a Democrat in Nebraska is bound to be more Conservative than one in Vermont! The GOP is more ideologically pure because it is a regional party.

    I agree with Taniel that Centrists need to get off saying - we have no ideology, we are pragmatic. Sometimes the “extreme” is needed.

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