Can Democrats Govern?

05/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The next two weeks in Congress may provide an answer to the metaphysical question "Can Democrats govern?" If the answer turns out to be "no," then a large part of the electorate is going to decide that it is pointless to bother electing large majorities of Democrats to Congress, because they simply can't get anything done when they get there. If the answer turns out to be "yes" (or even "kind of"), then Democrats may have a chance to make the case this fall that electing lots of Democrats is the way for the voters to go.

In the next two weeks, two major pieces of legislation will be in the news. The first, of course, is health reform. The second was just introduced today by Senator Chris Dodd, and it deals with Wall Street reform, and consumer protection. Dodd's bill has a long way to go, but it'll start the process in his committee soon.

President Obama faced an enormous challenge when he took office, because our financial system appeared to be on the brink of outright collapse. For the past year, this danger has faded and the economy is beginning to show signs of bouncing back -- a stunning achievement in such a short period of time, but one for which Obama doesn't get a lot of credit at times. But the problem is that Wall Street is still playing by the same rules that led to the near-collapse. The regulatory structure has not been changed yet to prevent the exact same thing from happening at any future point. Congress has not acted yet. Well, to be precise, the House has acted (and passed a fairly strong bill), and the Senate has not. Which is why Dodd's draft of a bill is big news, because the Senate is finally making a little progress on the issue.

On health reform, Democrats are approaching the finish line (finally!) after spending much of the last year on the subject. But success is not guaranteed, even at this point. White House officials and Democratic leadership sound confident so far that they've got the process under control and the necessary votes under their belt, but this is not the same thing as a guarantee that within two weeks both health reform bills will be on Obama's desk awaiting his signature. No matter what happens in the end, it's going to be a lively few weeks in Washington, that's for sure.

But, on both these issues, the core question boils down to: Can Democrats govern? Can they actually do what is necessary, once they get power in Washington? Can they follow through on the campaign promises that got them there? Can they behave like adults and fix our nation's problems to avoid future financial disaster, or are Democrats just incapable of actually taking necessary action -- even when they've got large majorities?

If Democrats can manage to pass the two health reform bills (without somehow tripping over their own metaphorical feet while attempting to do so), then the American public will take notice. Whether one loves or hates the plan Democrats are trying to pass, its passage will be a political fact. Voters will agree on the basic fact: "Well, they got it done." Whether that motivates voters to support Democrats who managed to pass such landmark legislation, or whether it motivates voters to "throw the bums out" remains to be seen, but at least such elections will hinge on the fact that Democrats passed something, and not "Well, we tried our best, maybe next time."

Now, I'm not trying to predict how individual voters will act, come November. All I'm saying is that on the question of basic competence in governing, Democrats are going to have a lot easier time explaining their position if they can point to tangible legislation which they managed to pass. Otherwise, they'll just have excuses for why they wasted a year without having anything to show for the effort. And that's not a very cheerful thing to try to run a campaign on.

Regulating Wall Street falls into the same category -- basic competence. We have a set of rules for Wall Street to operate under. The rules failed to prevent a near-disaster. We barely survived this near-disaster. So, to prevent future repeats of this performance, any sane individual would agree that the rules need to be changed -- and beefed up. In specific, rules which cover the causes which led to the problems. It's been about a year and a half after the near-disaster struck. And yet the rules remain the same.

This one's even easier than health reform, because Democrats can so easily position themselves as on the side of the consumer of financial products (mortgages, in particular), and their opponents on the side of The Big Banks, or just Wall Street. Republicans aren't going to go along with Democratic ideas (that's pretty much a given, especially since Dodd bent over backwards trying to get Republicans on board, but finally wrote his own bill in frustration with the endless delays and obstructionism). Meaning Republicans will have to explain out on the campaign trail why they're for letting Wall Street operate exactly the same way as led to the near-disaster.

Once again, to any sane individual, crafting some new Wall Street regulations is a no-brainer. Doing so means whoever is in charge is capable of governing. Not doing so means incompetence.

Which is why I'll be following both pieces of legislation closely in the next few weeks. Democratic chances in the upcoming congressional elections may hinge mostly on where the unemployment rate is around October, I realize. But although the economy in general will likely be the major factor in the elections this year, Democrats also need to prove that they are capable of governing when the voters give them the chance. This means being able to pass legislation Democratic politicians have been promising their voters for years, and it also means being able to react to a crisis by passing legislation to avoid the same problem in the future. It means, in short, being able to govern.

Because if Democrats are seen as the party that tries real hard (but never manages to get anything actually accomplished), then it's hard to fathom why voters would get enthusiastic about the party. "Close" only counts in horseshoes, as they say. If this is truly the case, then ironically the Democrats actually become the "party of no" -- because the only reason left to elect them is to prevent Republicans from passing their agenda. And the slogan "Elect a lot of Democrats so that we can stop the Republican agenda, and waste a lot of time fooling around with things we can't pass" just isn't going to cut the mustard.

Either Democrats can govern -- and can make this case to the public during the campaign -- or they cannot. The next few weeks will be critical in answering this fundamental question.


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