Monday, March 30, 2009

It's just too dang hard to govern

Jonathan Chait has an article in the New Republic arguing that the Democrats have inherent flaws that prevent them from governing effectively. He traces the entire problem to a few recalcitrant senators who are refusing to take advantage of arcane Senate rules to push through the Democratic agenda. He argues that the Republicans were more willing to do so to push through George Bush's policies than Democrats are.
And then, finally, Democrats have locked themselves into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When their party controls all of Washington, things tend to go south quickly. The president's popularity plunges, and soon his copartisans in Congress find themselves scrambling to keep from losing their own seats in the political undertow. It happened to Carter in 1978 and 1980, and again to Clinton in 1994.

And, so, they hedge their bets by carving out an independent identity. It doesn't matter that Obama is popular now, or that a majority of Americans (according to a recent Pew poll) reject the criticism that he's "trying to do too much." If Obama defies history and retains his popularity, they'll retain their seats anyway. They have to worry about the scenario where Obama turns into an albatross.

But, of course, 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. Ultimately, the moderates find there is no escape. Republicans in Congress grasped the futility of beggar-thy-neighbor survivalism, and they stood behind Bush in 2005 and 2006, even as his popularity fell to Nixonian levels. The hard truth for Democrats is that Obama's popularity is bound to fall. The economy will not turn around overnight, and the voters' memory of disastrous GOP rule will grow dimmer and dimmer with time. 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 seems impossible to believe that this party, with the challenges before the country so great and the opportunity to address them so rare, would once again follow the path to self-immolation. Yet, somehow, the Democrats can't help themselves.
What Chait really can't stand is that there are moderates in the Senate who are concerned with the opinions of their states and also like to support the economic interests and businesses located in their states. So Democrats elected from more conservative states like Kent Conrad of North Dakota or Ben Nelson of Nebraska aren't jumping all over themselves to push through Obama's health care plans or cap and trade plan in a reconciliation package that would need only 50 votes instead of 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

While I'd disagree with his premise that those vile Republicans are more willing than Democrats to push through their agenda, the major problem that Chait has with the Senate is that whole democracy thing. Dang those senators who are representing their constituents rather than the party. This is why we have a Senate and don't just have representatives elected at large or have the party select all the senators.

Sure the arcane rules of the Senate are a pain and antidemocratic. But you can't have it both ways and decry the filibuster when your party runs the place but celebrate the role of filibusters and holds when the other party is in control.

We have a two-party system and for a party to win it must encompass a very large tent. So the Democrats range from Evan Bayh and Kent Conrad to Barbara Boxer. That's what happens when you win a large majority - you have all sorts in the tent. And they'll have to govern with the party they have, not the party Jonathan Chait would like to have.