You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Elephants United

Here's Why the Dems Can't Get Anything Done

Has ever a Republican Senator been more altered at the hands of Rush Limbaugh? After Senator Lindsey Graham debuted his immigration reform bill this spring, the chief of Dittohead Nation labeled him "Senator Grahamnesty" and set off a firestorm against him from the Republican base. But even in his dreams, Limbaugh couldn't have imagined the results he would produce: Last month, in an offering to the anti-amnesty opponents he had derided as "bigots" during the original immigration debate, Graham turned around and began trumpeting $3 million in emergency spending for a draconian border crackdown and promoting a hard-line enforcement bill dreamed up by another Republican immigration-reform advocate making an about-face.

So, on the issue--immigration--that seemed to hold the most possibility of left-right compromise at the beginning of the term, the formerly split Republicans have now unified, ruining efforts to pass both their own enforcement measures and the reform wish lists of Democrats. It's just the most recent manifestation of the strange Republican unity that has foiled Democrats at nearly every turn this term. We've seen it on Iraq, too. The story of Democrats' efforts to pass legislation that affects the conduct of the war has been repetitious: Hopes rise for Republican defections, and always, there are far fewer than expected. House whip counts showed up to 60 Republicans ready to join the Democrats on a nonbinding resolution condemning Bush's surge in February; only 17 did. In early July, Senator Jim Webb crafted an amendment mandating shorter military deployments, intended to be the definitive test of whether Republicans were willing to legislate on Iraq at all. Chuck Hagel signed on to it as a co-sponsor, and several prominent Republicans ominously broke with Bush publicly in the days before the vote. But enough renegade Republicans retreated back into the party's fold, and by July 11, it had tidily failed.

In November, Republicans fretted about party unity, fearing the loss of the majority would liberate once-slavishly obedient members to throw off the leadership and cast all sorts of maverick ballots. The opposite has happened. On the votes, Democrats have been cursed with almost exclusively bad surprises.

Why hasn't the opposition behaved as expected? Maybe it was unreasonable to expect that the fear of being offed in 2008 would provoke Republicans to vote more moderately: If you look at those GOPers who lost last year, they are--generally--not fire-breathers but moderates. National Journal's neat graphic charting the ideological center of the House and Senate--last updated in 2006--is peppered with November losers. Looking at it this way, I don't blame moderate Republicans for hesitating to remake themselves into Lincoln Chafee. Party activists and pundits like Limbaugh have picked up on that trend, too, pressuring wavering Republicans to stay the course or face attacks from two sides.

But this move-right-on-the-issues logic doesn't explain why Republicans have united around Alberto Gonzales. At the AG's first, pathetic hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Republicans there savaged him, and I thought for sure that calling for his ouster would turn into a safe outlet for them to vent their frustrations with the Bush administration. I asked a veteran conservative-leaning reporter for his take. "How's Gonzales doing?" He shook his head in disgust: "Cooked."

But Gonzo wasn't cooked. He wasn't cooked after his second hearing, either, at which he performed even worse. Despite all the threatening signals, despite the outright assessments from powerful Republicans that Gonzales didn't deserve his job anymore, in the end, nothing happened. No Republican Senator joined the 50 out of 51 Democrats who voted for a censure resolution against Gonzales. When pressed why they didn't, chief Republican Gonzales critics like Arlen Specter or Tom Coburn usually grumble that Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee head Chuck Schumer is trying too hard to get '08 campaign donations out of the scandal.

In any political season, there are always some supposed mavericks who talk big and then don't make the breaks they're supposed to, like the stubborn kernels in the bottom of the popcorn bag that never fulfill the promise of their creation. The Republican caucus in the 110th Congress is a whole bag of kernels that just won't pop.

It's possible there's a genius behind the mysterious Republican unity, a person or persons exerting masterful persuasion and conniving tricks to keep the GOPers in line. Minority Leader John Boehner in the House deserves a lot of credit--or blame, depending on your point of view--for keeping his troops together, and some conservative young Turks like Adam Putnam in the House and Jim DeMint in the Senate have showered their compatriots with a hearty bit of winger energy to keep everyone feeling good about the cause. It's also possible the Democrats are to blame for failing to win enemy hearts and minds, mis-timing or mis-framing resolutions like the Gonzales censure and the May Reid-Feingold out-of-Iraq legislation and turning off moderates like Arlen Specter and Chuck Hagel. But the Webb amendment was designed to offer the utmost palatability, the gentlest means of changing course. If it wasn't enough, then nothing is enough.

To really understand the Republicans' unity, don't underestimate the power of sheer depression. After the November election, Republicans were extremely demoralized; one defeated member couldn't even get out of bed. The malaise extended to surviving Republicans, too. "It would be easy for our members to just sink into a hole," Boehner told me in May. "The loss of our majority was devastating." And one major symptom of depression is apathy. To my mind, the Republicans' behavior on Iraq is a kind of depressive lethargy: complaining aplenty, but never mustering the energy to get out of bed and put your complaints into action.