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Spare the Rod?

In the first half of his presidency, George W. Bush was masterful at co-opting enough Democrats in Congress to advance his agenda on education and tax cuts. But the president didn't repay the favor. In the 2002 congressional elections, the White House savaged many of the very same Democrats who'd voted with the president on his top legislation. So Democrats licked their wounds, chalked up the midterm debacle to experience, and vowed that their days of helping Bush were over. But, as the two biggest legislative fights of the year--on Medicare and energy--came to their conclusions last month, it didn't seem as if Democrats had learned a thing.

Consider first the Medicare bill. This costly, dangerous piece of legislation might never have made it to a vote were it not for a critical summer endorsement given to its Senate version by Ted Kennedy (see Jonathan Cohn, "Careless," page 17). Recall that two years earlier, the Massachusetts senator had given his symbolic backing to Bush's education reform bill, only to see the president subsequently betray him by shortchanging the money to implement it. Rather than learn from this mistake, Kennedy repeated it. By the time Congress was considering a final bill well to the right of the version Kennedy had naively backed--leading him to bray on the Senate floor about "privatizing the Medicare System"--it was too late to stop it.

At least Kennedy was duped. Less forgivable are Democratic Senators Max Baucus and John Breaux, whose public backing of the final GOP Medicare bill gave it a critical--and utterly misleading--veneer of bipartisanship. Once again, this was a sadly familiar tale. In 2001, around the time Kennedy was fawning over the education bill, Baucus and Breaux were helping to pass the Bush tax cut under a "bipartisan" label. Although Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle was said to be furious at both men, his anger didn't stop the two of them from pulling the same stunt again last month.

Which is why it's time for Democrats to do more than get angry--and actually punish their most egregious defectors. Party leaders, for instance, should at least raise the specter of stripping Baucus of his position as ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, where he continually uses his power to undermine his own party. And, if Breaux doesn't retire at the end of next year, Democrats might consider withholding support for his reelection or perhaps encouraging a challenger to run against him in the primary--much as the White House quietly encouraged John Sununu to run against renegade New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith in the 2002 Republican primary.

Of course, it would be easier for Senate Democratic leaders to enforce this sort of discipline if they stood on higher ground themselves. The GOP energy bill is one of the tackiest documents to sully the Capitol in recent memory--short on solutions and long on pork projects and tax subsidies for narrow interests. And, while Senate Democrats succeeded in filibustering the bill to at least a temporary death, they did so without Daschle, who, facing reelection next year, backed the bill for wasteful ethanol subsidies that would benefit his South Dakota constituents. Other senior Democrats, such as North Dakota Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, joined Daschle's embarrassing stance after they were apparently bought off by the last-minute inclusion of new coal plants in their state. (To their discredit, Conrad and Dorgan also both supported the Medicare bill.) In all, 13 Senate Democrats voted against their own party's filibuster of the energy bill, which succeeded only with the help of a handful of principled Republicans.

Democrats in the House acquitted themselves somewhat better. On the Medicare bill, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did such a good job of holding her party together that House Republican leaders had to keep the roll call open for an unprecedented three hours while they threatened and bribed dissenting Republicans to change their votes. But the House Democrats' discipline slipped on the energy bill, as 46 of them voted for the measure. Pelosi recently suggested she might punish Democrats who defect on critical votes. She must now follow through in dealing with the Democrats who defected on the energy bill.

Rank partisanship isn't attractive, and bullying members of one's own party isn't pleasant. But the Bush administration's three-year string of narrow victories on controversial legislation has amply demonstrated that these approaches can be terribly effective, especially when Democratic leaders allow members of their party to vote their consciences or, more often, their parochial interests. Sometimes the only way to respond to an opponent's unsavory methods is to emulate them. Now is one of those times.

By The Editors