Democratic Dysfunction, An Update

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JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 16, 2010

Democratic Dysfunction, An Update

A year ago, I wrote an article for TNR on the dysfunctionality of Congressional Democrats:

The last Democrat who held the White House, Bill Clinton, saw the core of his domestic agenda come to ruin, his political support collapse, and his failure spawn a massive Republican resurgence that made progressive reform impossible for a decade to come. The Democrat who last held the White House before that, Jimmy Carter, saw the exact same thing happen to him.

At this early date, nobody can know whether or not Barack Obama will escape this fate. But the contours of failure are now clearly visible. In Obama's case, as with his predecessors, the prospective culprit is the same: Democrats in Congress, and especially the Senate. At a time when the country desperately needs a coherent response to the array of challenges it faces, the congressional arm of the Democratic Party remains mired in fecklessness, parochialism, and privilege. Obama has made mistakes, as did his predecessors. Yet the constant recurrence of legislative squabbling and drift suggests a deeper problem than any characterological or tactical failures by these presidents: a congressional party that is congenitally unable to govern.

Then, for a while, they seemed to get their act together. But now dysfunction has reappeared, and -- depending whether or not health care reform passes -- may become the defining story of the first two years of the Obama administration. The depth of Congress's inability to function and advance the public interest is staggering.

Today, NBC's First Read points out:

If we told you that Democrats were favored to lose about eight Senate seats (six of which are in states Obama carried in '08), lose some 30 to 40 in the House, and see their top domestic issue -- health care -- stalled in Congress, you’d guess that President Obama’s approval rating was, what, 35%? Maybe 40%? But as any close follower of American politics knows, Obama’s approval is at or near 50% (even at 53% in the always-volatile Gallup daily track). Yet Democrats, including what we saw and heard from Evan Bayh yesterday, are behaving like Obama is at 35%. This is particularly ironic when we’re just a year-plus removed from a president whose approval was 25% to 30%. There is no doubt that this is a TOUGH political environment for Democrats, but are they making it tougher by running for the hills when things might not be as bad for them as was the GOP’s situation from 2006-2008? And what does it say about the Democrats and their ability to govern when they’re acting like this when their president is at 50%? Republicans rallied around their president in '04, when he was hovering around 50%.

Or take this passage from Elizabeth Drew's report on health care reform:

By this time, the House and the Senate, between which there have long been institutional tensions, were nearly at war. The House had passed some politically difficult bills (cap and trade to lower carbon emissions, regulatory reform of Wall Street, another jobs bill) that were lying dormant in the Senate. House Democrats were steamed up and threatening not to take up certain bills, such as immigration reform, until the Senate had done so. ...

Logically, there should still be a way to get a bill passed. But logic went out the window on January 19. The situation was as much psychodrama as legislative stalemate. The perfectly reasonable argument was made to Democrats in Congress, mainly by the administration, that, having voted for the bill already, it would be worse for them to fail to pass it than to pass it, but this seemed not to be heard. If Obama didn't exert himself for the bill on which he'd spent most of his time in office thus far, it would be not just a political catastrophe for him but leave a scar on his presidency. Longtime observers—members of Congress and people who deal with them—say they have never seen such a sour mood on Capitol Hill, affecting both members and staff alike. One longtime Democrat said to me recently:

The moderates are paranoid, the liberals are upset, the leaders are frustrated and losing the trust of everybody. There's no level of trust between the Senate and the House or the White House and everyone else. There has been a breakdown of the kind of chemistry you need to get this kind of thing done.

Economic conditions plus a midterm election guaranteed a very election for Democrats. But history may record that they took a tough situation and turned it into a total meltdown.

I still think there's a better than even chance the Democrats pull themselves together and pass health care reform, which would allow them to spend the rest of the Congress  trying to force Republicans to take tough votes against the big bank tax and financial reform. Bu the rot is so deep that there's really no telling what this Congressional party is capable of.

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posted in: jonathan chait, nbc, barack obama, bill clinton, elizabeth drew, evan bayh, jimmy carter, congress, democratic party, republican party, senate, white house

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