But when it comes to how to wield power in Washington once you've won an election, give me the Republicans over the Democrats any day of the week. I was reminded of the Democrats' seeming inability to govern when I read about the health care bill that finally emerged from Max Baucus's Senate Finance Committee, after months of negotiations with three Republicans on the committee.
(To be absolutely clear here, so there are no misunderstandings: When I say that Republicans govern better than Democrats do, I am strictly speaking about how effectively they turn their policy positions into law. I am not saying I want the Republicans to retake the House and Senate, and I do not support the Republican positions on issues, which generally look to protect corporations and the wealthiest Americans at the expense of everyone else, and seek to instill an extreme, religion-based morals agenda on the country. What I'm saying is that I wish the Democrats would act like Republicans once they find themselves in power.)
For most of George W. Bush's two terms in office, especially during the key period from 2002 to 2006, he had a solidly Republican Congress with which to work. So, despite a razor-thin win in 2000 (losing the popular vote and, in the minds of many, only winning the electoral vote thanks to a flawed, partisan Supreme Court decision), and another narrow victory in 2004, as president, Bush made no effort to moderate his agenda and pursue bipartisan legislation. His party allies in Congress loyally backed nearly all of his proposals, and Bush gleefully rammed through his far-right conservative agenda (massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, etc.), which was well to the right of his campaign rhetoric (remember, he was a "compassionate conservative"), without thinking twice about what Democrats thought of what he was doing. His razor-thin margin of victory (and even the fact that fewer people voted for him than his opponent in 2000) didn't stop him (or his allies in Congress) from moving full-speed ahead with legislation he supported.
Flash forward to 2008. The American people, via their votes, absolutely and unquestionably repudiated the Republican policies of the previous eight years. After giving Democrats narrow advantages in the House and Senate in 2006, voters really "threw the bums out" in 2008, leaving Democrats with a 60-40 majority in the Senate (once Al Franken was seated) and an even more commanding 256-178 lead in the House. The American people also overwhelmingly elected a Democrat to the presidency, handing Barack Obama 365 electoral votes (to 173 for John McCain), with 53 percent of the popular vote going to Obama and only 46 percent to McCain. In two elections, Bush never came close to these kinds of numbers. And Obama managed to win red states like North Carolina and Indiana that few commentators thought the Democrats could even have a chance of taking just a couple of years earlier.
In short, the American people said to the Democrats: We want you to do your thing.
And yet, that isn't what has happened. Instead, the Democrats in Congress have been timid, looking for Republican support (and making concessions to get it) even though they didn't need it. At first, it was an admirable pursuit, an effort to leave partisan bickering behind and concentrate on solving the massive problems the current administration and Congress inherited from the disastrous presidency that preceded them. And it was something the president not only supported, but actively pursued. But in the first big legislative test of the bipartisan approach, the stimulus bill, not a single House member voted for the legislation, and only a pair of Republicans in the Senate signed on (it was three, but Arlen Specter later became a Democrat, leaving just Maine's two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as current Republicans who voted for the bill).
The result was weaker stimulus legislation (to try and lure Republicans), but no Republican support. That is a lose-lose for the Democrats (and those suffering from the recession), and a win-win for the Republicans.
The stimulus bill should have been a wake-up call for Democrats in Congress. The way the Republicans stood united in opposition despite Democratic efforts at bipartisanship should have announced loud and clear that the Republicans had no intention of acting reasonably. They had successfully closed ranks, ensuring that not one single Republican in the House voted for the bill and that they didn't help the president succeed on something that might be viewed as a "win" for him. It should have been a "fool me once" moment from which the Democrats emerged wiser, going forward with the knowledge that the Republicans were only out to obstruct (it was the moment of birth for the Party of No). It should have emboldened Democrats to say, "We won 256 House seats, 60 Senate seats and the presidency. We get to make the rules now. Your guy pushed through his agenda after losing the popular vote. We tried to be nice, and you kicked crap in our faces. We're done. Have fun on the sidelines watching us enact our agenda."
But that's not what happened.
Yes, I understand that you need 60 votes in the Senate to invoke cloture, and yes I know that there is a good size contingent of Blue Dog Democrats in the House and more conservative Democrats in the Senate who would be reluctant to sign off on some of the president's initiatives. Certainly, compromises would have to be made to ensure that enough Democrats supported a given piece of legislation. But those negotiations should have been handled internally. After the stimulus fiasco, the Democrats should have ensured that when they emerged from a caucus meeting on an issue, they had enough votes to pass it without Republican help, just as Bush and his Republican followers did when they were in power.
And yet, instead, the Democrats keep playing the fool.
Which brings us back to the Baucus debacle. He spent months -- months! -- negotiating with three Republicans (Olympia Snowe, Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi) to try and get a bipartisan health care reform bill through his finance committee. Anybody with an IQ above 75 and access to a major daily newspaper knew that there was no meaningful health care reform bill that Enzi and Grassley were going to get behind. Did Baucus listen to and/or read the kinds of things Grassley was saying in interviews and on talk shows? (Two words: death panels.) The Republicans weren't going to give the president a win (remember Jim DeMint's famous health care will be Obama's "Waterloo" remark), and they were too beholden to their corporate interests to support anything that would have any real impact on the status quo. The Republicans were obviously stalling, trying to do anything they could to keep the health care reform process from moving forward. Again, this was all obvious to everyone watching ... except Baucus.
So what ended up happening? Baucus announced today that he was going forward with a bill and ... surprise! ... no Republicans are backing it (not even Snowe). But, thanks to Baucus bending over backwards to try and lure Republicans, the Finance Committee bill is weaker than any of the other versions to get through committees in the House and Senate. Enzi, Grassley and Snowe managed to stall the process for months and ensure a weaker bill emerged from the Finance Committee, and they did so without having to actually do anything or give up anything (or support the legislation). Who won that battle, Baucus or the Republicans? If it was a boxing match, Baucus would be bloody and unconscious, and Enzi, Grassley and Snowe would be dancing around the ring, triumphantly holding their hands up in victory.
What Baucus (and the rest of the Democrats in Congress) have to realize is some exceptionally simple math: 60 seats in the Senate + 256 seats in the House + 365 electoral votes = They get to do what they said they would do during the campaign. It really is that simple. Make the Republicans vote against the bills. Make them filibuster what they oppose. Expose them for what they are: the Party of No that puts political games and corporate interests ahead of what is best for the American people.
But no, to Baucus, 60 + 256 + 365 = He has to get on his knees and kiss Republican butt. Sorry, Senator, you get an F in math.
The Democrats won overwhelmingly last November. Now they have to govern. Especially after the way Republicans played them for fools on the stimulus legislation, Democrats don't have to kowtow to Republicans. They need to get in a room and come up with health care legislation that the 59 Democratic senators (after Ted Kennedy's passing) -- or 51 of them if they go the reconciliation route --and 218 House members can get behind (and that the president will sign) and get it done. If Republicans want to filibuster, vote no, complain, spew lies, hold rallies, go on talk shows, call Obama a socialist, and throw temper tantrums, let them. I am not saying the Democrats shouldn't fight the public relations battle and shoot down the lies slopped to the public by health care reform opponents, I'm just saying they should do it while passing legislation on their own.
To the Democrats I say: Forget Baucus's bill. Don't give the Republicans another victory (one which represents a defeat for the American people). Pass meaningful health care reform, even if not a single Republican votes for it.
60 + 256 + 365. The math is so easy. If only the Democrats could figure it out. I'm happy to email them a link to the election returns every day if it will help.
Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer taught the Democrats how to win elections, which is great. I just wish someone would teach Democrats in Congress how to govern.