Are Senate Democrats Really That Stupid?

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JONATHAN COHN OCTOBER 11, 2011

Are Senate Democrats Really That Stupid?

Are Senate Democrats really foolish enough not to line up behind President Obama's jobs bill? 

Quite possibly.

On Tuesday night, Majority Leader Harry Reid will try to bring the newly revised package to a vote. He won't succeed, because the chamber's 47 Republicans will vote unanimously to filibuster it. And it takes only 40 to succeed.

But if Reid can get just 50 Democrats to signal their support by voting to break that filibuster, then the Democrats will have a powerful rhetorical weapon. They'll be able to say, truthfully, that the jobs bill would pass, by majority vote, if only Republicans would allow a full vote on the bill. (Vice President Biden would break the 50-50 tie.)

Ideally, that would provoke a political backlash and Republicans would relent, allowing portions of the jobs bill (if not the whole thing) to get through the chamber. And if the Republicans wouldn't relent? Then at least Obama and the Democrats could point to that obstructionism during the fall election, giving the voters a clear choice about each party's priorities.

But that's going to be a lot harder if Reid can't round up the 50. And right now the prospects look very mixed, according to multiple sources in and around Capitol Hill. Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin have already said they won't vote to break the filibuster. New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen says she's a "yes" vote -- but only if she's present. And she might not be, because she agreed previously to be in her home state to collect an award. (She has apparently told Reid she'll stay in Washington if her vote is necessary to pass the bill. But, of course, it's not going to pass, so that could be meaningless.)

Nelson represents Nebraska and Manchin, newly elected, represents West Virginia. Both are running for reelection in states where the very word "Obama" is positively  toxic, so I suppose I understand their political thinking. Never mind that the elements of the bill are popular. Supporting Obama on anything is a liability for them, particularly for Manchin who has little record of doing so before.

But what about the others? Most of them have plenty of votes tying them to the president already. Their best bet is to present a united front behind a set of programs that they happen to like, substantively, and that can be credibly presented as an effort to do something on jobs.

You don't have to take my word for this. This morning Greg Sargent interviewed Stanley Greenberg, the respected Democratic pollster:

In an interview with me this morning, Greenberg made a strong case that moderate Senate Democrats in red states would be foolish and shortsighted if they vote against the American Jobs Act today, as some of them appear to be prepared to do. The White House and Dems have been railing against Republicans for opposing the jobs bill, but if a few Senate Dems defect, and a simple majority of the Senate doesn’t support it, that will dilute the Dem message that Republicans are the key obstacle to progress on the economy.

But Greenberg’s case for voting for the bill went significantly beyond this concern about overall party messaging. He argued that moderate Democrats who vote against it are actually imperiling their own reelection chances.

“They reduce their risks for reelection by showing support for a jobs bill that’s going to be increasingly popular as voters learn more about it,” Greenberg said. “They have to be for something on the economy, and this the kind of proposal they should support. If I were advising them, I’d say you want to be backing a jobs bill with middle class tax cuts paid for by tax hikes on millionaires. Moderate voters in these states very much want to raise taxes on the wealthy to meet our obligations.”

Crucially, Greenberg pointed out that if moderate Dems are hoping to show distance from the President and his low approval numbers by voting against the jobs bill, they run another risk: Dem disunity on the economy could backfire on them.

“Voting No would increase their risk of losing,” Greenberg said bluntly. “Democrats would look divided on their central agenda. In the end you all go down with the ship here. Why would you send Democrats back to the Senate if they are divided on the most important issue facing people? Here you can show unity and purpose, which Democrats have not had an opportunity to do during budget negotiations.”

Keep in mind that, as Ruy Teixeira argues elsewhere at TNR, Obama's new populism is not alienating swing voters. If anything, it's attracting them. Also keep in mind that the tax proposal, which is presumably the element that scares these moderate Democrats the most, comes from the office of Max Baucus, who knows a thing or two about representing conservative states. 

Joan McCarter captures the absurdity of the moment:

Now is not the time for ConservaDems to try to prove they are not really Democrats, when the Democrats are actually, finally, working on the issues that matter the most to the majority of people in this country, whether those people are in New York or California or Montana or Louisiana. Even Nebraska. Now, more than ever, it's time for Democrats to be on the side of the 99 percent. If they want to keep their jobs, that is.

 

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, ben nelson, harry reid, jeanne shaheen, joe manchin, stanley greenberg, nebraska, new hampshire, west virginia, senate

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