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So Why Have the Democrats Struggled?

The TNR Congressional Roundup

Over the next few days, a group of Congressional experts will try to answer the big questions that came out of the Capitol last year: Were the Democrats as hapless as the press made them out to be? How could've they been more effective in meeting those filibustering Republicans head-on? What happened with the timetable for withdrawal? And, hey, where's Rahm when you need him? You can read their responses here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven.

From: Eve Fairbanks

To: Michelle Cottle and Norman Ornstein

Subject: So Why Have the Democrats Struggled?

Hello and hello. Kind of a bummer of a congressional term to be launching an end-of-year conversation about, no? Every time I open the Washington Post, I see these Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane articles with headlines like “Key Setbacks Dim Luster of Democrats’ Year,” “Democrats Bow to Bush's Demands in House Spending Bill,” “Democrats Blaming Each Other For Failures”; the Times isn’t much better, with David Herszenhorn hawking “How the Filibuster Became the Rule” and the rather mysterious but definitely pathetic-sounding “All the Makings of a Carnival, Except the Fun.” When the Grey Lady is willing to run lines like “here, in the Cirque du Senate, there is trash-talking, whining and finger-pointing,” we know there is not only a major clusterfuck going on, but that there’s also a terrible dearth of insight in the communal pundit mind about what’s gone wrong to allow it. So, the question is: What the hell has gone wrong with the Democrats’ capacity to rule?

I wonder if you guys put any stock in Charlie Rangel’s theory, floated in the “Democrats Blaming Each Other” dirge I linked above, that Democrats (in the Senate in particular) have “Stockholm syndrome,” which is defined in this Medical Dictionary as “an extraordinary phenomenon in which a hostage begins to identify with and grow sympathetic to their captor.” (The dictionary adds helpfully: “The Stockholm syndrome is not limited to Swedes.”)

Obviously, Rangel’s choice of phrase was in no small part a sort of bitter joke. But is there some reality there? Are Democrats: a) prone to resigning themselves too easily to legislative defeats; b) afraid that if they strong-arm Republicans they will have Succumbed to the Vices of Power; c) too sympathetic to the plight of moderate Republicans like Susan Collins or John Warner who talk a reasonable game but usually end up going with their leadership; or d) paralyzed by their fear and awe of the Republicans’ tactical prowess under Mitch McConnell? And if they are afflicted by any of these problems--well, why? Is it a failure of Senate leadership, or some deeper difficulty in governing from a liberal perspective?

I have some sympathy with (d), because I’ll say it: I have fear and awe of the Republicans’ tactical prowess. It turns out years of honing one’s parliamentary warfare in the majority translates into the minority pretty well. Take a look at this graph, which was making the rounds on the blogs at the end of last year:

Is there any way to stop this filibuster insanity? Corollary: If Chuck Schumer ran everything and not Harry Reid, would the Senate be a crueler place, but also a more disciplined place? Would that red bar on the right look shorter?

(Read Norman Ornstein's response here.)

Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic. Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic. Norman Ornstein is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, in 2006, of The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann.

By Michelle Cottle, Eve Fairbanks, and Norman Ornstein