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Why the Democrats Can't Govern

Look who's killing Obama's agenda now.

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. George W. Bush came to office having lost the popular vote, with only 50 Republicans in the Senate. After his disputed election, pundits insisted Bush would have to scale back his proposed massive tax cuts for the rich. Instead, Bush managed to enact several rounds of tax cuts that substantially exceeded those in his campaign platform, along with two war resolutions, a Medicare prescription drug benefit designed to maximize profits for the health care industry, energy legislation, education reform, and sundry other items. Whatever the substantive merits of this agenda, its passage represented an impressive feat of political leverage, accomplished through near-total partisan discipline. Obama has come into office having won the popular vote by seven percentage points, along with a 79-seat edge in the House, a 17-seat edge in the Senate, and massive public demand for change. But it's already clear he is receiving less, not more, deference from his own party. Democrats have treated Obama with studied diffidence, both in their support for the substance of his agenda and (more importantly) their willingness to support it procedurally. The tone of the Senate's disposition toward Obama was set from the very beginning. Coming into office during a severe economic emergency, he hoped that Congress would have a bill to jump-start consumer demand ready to sign immediately upon taking office. And most Democrats supported Obama's position, though eleven House moderates defected, while a handful of their Senate colleagues joined with Republican moderates to water down the legislation. Economic forecasters projected that the original House bill would increase employment by 3.5 million. After the Senate rewrote the bill, forecasters downgraded their estimate to just 2.5 million. Moderates regarded their contribution with deep satisfaction. The stimulus served as a mere precursor to the major battle over Obama's budget, which represents a once-in-a-generation chance for the Democratic Party to reshape the priorities of the federal government--to reduce America's unsustainable carbon emissions and reform its bloated, cruel health care system. Democrats have utterly failed to rise to the occasion. The first sign of how the Senate would respond came on February 27, when Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, gave an interview to cnbc. Conrad listed three objections to Obama's budget. First, he opposed a provision to limit tax deductions for high-income earners. Second, he opposed a new cap on crop subsidies to farmers who take in more than $500,000 per year. And, third, he upbraided Obama for not doing more to reduce the budget deficit. You might think a performance like this--demanding that Obama do more to reduce the deficit while simultaneously opposing his deficit-reducing measures-- would have turned Conrad into a punch line. Instead, it launched him as a symbol of fiscal rectitude and encouraged fellow Democrats to follow in his hypocritical wake. Numerous Democrats have since stepped forward to join what news reports have accurately described as a "revolt" against Obama's budget. What's maddening is not that Obama's budget is a perfect document--though it does a better job of setting priorities than any presidential budget in at least the last 30 years--but that the deficit-reducing measures Democrats object to are the most sensible parts of the budget. Take the farm payments Conrad endorses. It is virtually impossible to find an economist on the left, right, or center who defends agriculture subsidies, which are costly, distort the market, and hurt the Third World poor. Obama does not dare phase out crop subsidies. Instead, he modestly asks to save about $1 billion per year by eliminating payments to farmers who gross more than $500, 000 per year--the least justifiable slice of a totally unjustifiable program. Conrad the Deficit Hawk, joined by other farm-state senators (such as Nebraska's Ben Nelson) and representatives, cannot abide it. Or consider Obama's plan to limit tax deductions for the rich. If your goal is to raise revenue without imposing pain on the middle class or unduly harming incentives, this is about the best way one can do it. (Because limiting deductions would not raise marginal tax rates, objections from conservative economists have been generally muted.) Democrats in both chambers have declared this proposal dead on arrival. But, if they want to reduce the deficit and fund health care reform, the money needs to come from somewhere. The most emblematic objection has come from Nelson, who is balking at Obama's plan to save money on college loans. You might suppose that a fiscal conservative like Nelson would agree with Obama's plan to save $4 billion on a social program. But he does not, for reasons that provide a useful window into the rot afflicting the congressional Democratic Party. For many years, the federal government supported college education by guaranteeing bank loans to students. If a student defaulted on his loan, Washington would simply pay back the difference. In 1993, Clinton undertook to reform the program by cutting out the middlemen and simply having the federal government issue the loans directly. Clinton hoped to save money for the government and plow some of those savings into lower interest rates for students. Of course, private lenders who benefitted from the no-risk profit stream balked and forced a compromise whereby both kinds of loans--guaranteed private loans, and direct loans from the government--would exist side by side. Recent years have shown beyond a doubt that the direct lending program works better. Every independent analysis--by the Congressional Budget Office, by the Office of Management and Budget under each of the last three presidents, and by the New America Foundation--has found that direct lending is cheaper. The guaranteed-loan program managed to cling to life through its congressional patrons and through simple graft. In 2007, a major student-loan scandal emerged when it turned out that private lenders paid off college administrators to drop out of the direct lending program and steer students to them. Obama thus proposes to save the taxpayers more than $4 billion per year by ending the guaranteed loans. This is as straightforward a case as you can find of a fight between special interests and the public good. Nelson opposes it because one of the lenders that benefits from federal overpayments is based in Lincoln, Nebraska. Some moderate Democrats seem to suffer from a conflation of their own fund- raising strategies with responsible fiscal policy. The Wall Street Journal reported, of a group of Democratic Senate centrists, "Their stated goal is to rein in deficits and to protect business interests." In fact, this is not a goal but two often-conflicting goals, and neither is synonymous with "the national interest." This sort of behavior didn't hurt Bush because his agenda largely was synonymous with business interests. But the Democratic agenda isn't, and Democratic confusion of the two is poisonous. A second and related problem is that Democrats are especially susceptible to the dysfunction of the Senate. Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute penned an article in AEI's magazine titled "Our Broken Senate." Over the last three decades, the filibuster, once a rare weapon used to express unusually strong objections, has dramatically expanded and turned into a routine, 60-vote supermajority requirement. During the same time period, the Senate has developed a new, anonymous one-person filibuster called a "hold." The clubby traditions of the Senate have allowed these new practices to expand unchallenged. "The always individual-oriented Senate," writes Ornstein, "has become even more indulgent of the demands of each of its 100 egotists." The Senate poses a particular obstacle to Democrats. Its structure gives greater voice to residents of low-population states, who tilt more Republican than the country as a whole. If you assume that every senator represents half the population of that state, then the Republican caucus represents less than 38 percent of the public. In electoral terms, we think of that as a tiny, even fringe minority. It's less than the share of the electorate that voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964. But it supports enough senators to block the majority's will. There is one tool available to break through the new supermajority requirement. That tool is called "reconciliation." Reconciliation is an expedited process to vote on a budget, limiting debate to 20 hours and, more importantly, circumventing the filibuster. This means that one budget bill every year can be passed with just 51 votes. As the filibuster has grown routine, reconciliation has become a vital legislative tool. Many Democrats, alas, are far more squeamish than their GOP colleagues about deploying this tool. If you do not follow Senate arcana for a living, you have probably never heard of reconciliation until the last few weeks, when it has suddenly emerged into the public debate as a terrible weapon with fearsome consequences. A recent front-page Washington Post article described reconciliation as a "shortcut." Republican Senator Judd Gregg cast the tactic in the most dramatic terms. "You're talking about running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River," he wailed. The notion that reconciliation represents some radical and extreme partisan step has settled in so deeply in part because numerous Democrats are making the same case, albeit in slightly less hysterical terms. Eight Democratic senators signed a letter opposing the use of reconciliation to pass a cap-and-trade bill limiting carbon-dioxide emissions. Reconciliation, they wrote, "would circumvent normal Senate practice and would be inconsistent with the administration's stated goals of bipartisanship, cooperation, and openness." Several Democrats also oppose using reconciliation to pass health care reform. Democrat Mary Landrieu offered up a somewhat less melodramatic argument when she said that reconciliation "was intended for deficit reduction, and it should not be used for other things." Reconciliation may have been intended for deficit reduction, but it has been often used for other things, such as deficit expansion--as in the case of the Bush tax cuts, which Landrieu voted for. (As did Gregg, who, as my colleague Jonathan Cohn discovered, was happy to support reconciliation for proposals like drilling for oil in anwr when Republicans controlled the majority.) There is, to be sure, a technical case to be made against the use of reconciliation. It's a more limited procedure that allows for less debate and may constrict the scope of the legislation that can be passed. I'd argue, in response, that the technical compromises required to get through reconciliation would degrade the legislation less than the political compromises required to get 60 votes. But the heart of the case against reconciliation isn't technical, it's moral--reconciliation as an unprecedented act of partisan irresponsibility. Robert Byrd calls the process "an undemocratic disservice to our people and to the Senate's institutional role." To grasp how upside-down this view is, remember the purpose of the reconciliation process, which is to clear the way for the Senate to make politically painful solutions to long-term problems. Health care and climate change clearly fall into that category. Shoveling hundreds of billions of dollars of upper-class tax cuts out the door, by contrast, is the very opposite of what reconciliation is intended for. And yet, Bush's repeated use of reconciliation to enact his tax cuts attracted no controversy at all. Even at this early date, the contrast between Democrats under Obama and Republicans under Bush is stark. Republicans did not denounce Bush for squandering a budget surplus to benefit the rich, the way Democrats now assail Obama for big spending and deficits. And Republicans did not refuse to use the budget procedures available to them to break through the Senate's inherent lethargy. Republicans, in other words, acted like a parliamentary party. Voters in 2000 did not go to the polls with the intention of giving the GOP a chance to put its agenda into place. But Republicans acted as if they did. With very few exceptions, Republicans in Congress behaved like the legislative branch of the Bush administration, helping Bush enact his agenda by using every method at their disposal. Democratic partisans constantly complain that their leaders in Washington fail to display the same partisan unity as Republicans do. And, in many crucial respects, they are correct. Even when they control the White House and both branches of Congress, Democrats have not displayed the parliamentary-style cohesion Republicans managed under Bush. One reason is that Democrats are trapped by their past. America's two major parties have, historically, lacked much ideological cohesion. The GOP contained conservatives alongside progressives. The Democratic Party consisted of everything from Northern liberals to Southern reactionaries. The latter, in particular, held disproportionate sway in Congress. Having less in common with Democratic presidents than Republican ones, they carved out an independent role and guarded their prerogatives. Since Democrats controlled the Congress almost continuously for more than 60 years beginning in 1933, the culture of Congress left a deeper imprint on their party. Republicans, shut out from the perks of majority status, finally decided under the opposition leadership of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s that their only path to power lay in partisan discipline. Democrats, on the other hand, came of age under the old Democratic chieftains, and they have mostly aped that style. They do not fall in line, even under a Democratic president who mostly shares their goals. Shortly after Obama took office, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced, "I don't work for him." Even House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, whose Harlem constituents danced in the streets after Obama's election, sniffed of Obama's plan to raise taxes on the rich, "I have to study it but I really don't take presidents' recommendations that seriously." Recommendation--that is the term that summarizes Congress's attitude. A president can suggest whatever he likes, but Congress is the one making the decisions, and don't you forget it. A second factor encouraging Democrats to buck their presidents is the role of the rich and business interests. Unless you are a high school student reading this article in your civics course, in which case I'm sorry to dispel your illusions, you will not be stunned to learn that the affluent carry disproportionate political weight with elites in both parties. So, while people who earn more than $250,000 per year make up just a tiny slice of the electorate, they make up a huge chunk of any congressman's friends, acquaintances, and fund-raisers. What's more, whatever their disposition toward business in general, Democrats feel it is not just a right but a duty to slavishly attend to the interests of their home-state businesses. That is why Kent Conrad upholds even the most absurd demands of agribusiness, or why even a good-government progressive like Michigan's Carl Levin parrots the auto industry's line on regulating carbon dioxide. Taken as a whole, then, the influence of business and the rich unites Republicans and splits Democrats. A few Republicans no doubt felt some qualms about supporting Bush's regressive, extreme pro-business agenda, but their most influential donors and constituents pushed them in the direction of partisan unity. Those same forces encourage Democrats to defect. That's why Ben Nelson is fighting student-loan reform, coal- and oil-state Democrats are insisting that cap-and-trade legislation be subject to a filibuster, and Democrats everywhere are fretting about reducing tax deductions for the highest-earning 1 percent of the population. And then, finally, Democrats have locked themselves into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When their party controls all of Washington, things tend to go south quickly. The president's popularity plunges, and soon his copartisans in Congress find themselves scrambling to keep from losing their own seats in the political undertow. It happened to Carter in 1978 and 1980, and again to Clinton in 1994. And, so, they hedge their bets by carving out an independent identity. It doesn't matter that Obama is popular now, or that a majority of Americans (according to a recent Pew poll) reject the criticism that he's "trying to do too much." If Obama defies history and retains his popularity, they'll retain their seats anyway. They have to worry about the scenario where Obama turns into an albatross. But, of course, the more Democrats defect, the more the president is defined as an extreme liberal, and the more ineffectual he seems as his agenda crashes upon the shoals. Ultimately, the moderates find there is no escape. Republicans in Congress grasped the futility of beggar-thy-neighbor survivalism, and they stood behind Bush in 2005 and 2006, even as his popularity fell to Nixonian levels. The hard truth for Democrats is that Obama's popularity is bound to fall. The economy will not turn around overnight, and the voters' memory of disastrous GOP rule will grow dimmer and dimmer with time. The one factor within the Democrats' control is whether their constituents see Obama as a strong leader taking action, like Roosevelt or Kennedy, or a floundering weakling, like Carter or first-term Clinton. It seems impossible to believe that this party, with the challenges before the country so great and the opportunity to address them so rare, would once again follow the path to self-immolation. Yet, somehow, the Democrats can't help themselves.