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Seth Korman Headshot

Democrats: Even When They Win, They Don't Win

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There is something both honorable and maddeningly infuriating with the current incarnation of the Democratic Party. Even as it seems to represent the policy preferences a growing majority of Americans, it remains unable to translate this authority into real, political power.

How is it that the increasingly popular Democrats refuse to wield the political cudgel that the voters have placed in their hand, while the increasingly unpopular Republicans have no qualms about pushing radical reforms to maintain a toehold on power?

Witness for example the debate over reforming the filibuster, but place it in a greater context. The GOP -- a party that has lost the popular vote in five out of the past six presidential elections, and that is structurally overrepresented in the Senate anyway -- has no problem enacting laws around the country that serve no purpose other than cementing their political influence. Yet at the same time, Democrats are reluctant to push forward modest reforms that, ironically, are both popular and more egalitarian.

Recent GOP initiatives such as mid-decade redistricting in Virginia, electoral-vote reapportionment in Pennsylvania, and the institution of numerous laws making it more difficult to vote are accepted as standard Republican maneuvering. But an attempt to limit the use of the filibuster? Not only is this a "naked power grab," according to Senator Mitch McConnell, but even some Democrats are reluctant to change rules that would aid both the president and their own agendas.

Similar scenarios abound in which Democrats who seek to find common ground with their opponents across the aisle find that the resulting legislation will be opposed regardless. And this has occurred even when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency. Obamacare, anyone?

What is it about the Democratic Party that it refuses to take full advantage of the power it has, while the GOP has little problem changing the rules to suit its own designs? Why the need to constantly cooperate or the reluctance to blame their opponents? Do Democrats not realize that political power begets policy change, or are they too wedded to the ideal of comity to aggressively shame their opponents? Maybe they really are, as Timothy Noah writes, simply a bunch of wimps?

"[T]here is something in the modern Democrat that abhors the raw exercise of power as a little bit, I don't know, vulgar. Franklin Roosevelt didn't have this handicap. Neither did Lyndon Johnson. But their latter-day successors do."

As much as I want to disagree with him, and as much as I believe in the ideals of bipartisanship and negotiation, there are times that call for politicians to -- are you ready for this -- exercise the power granted to them by the electorate.

So why is it that Democrats find this idea so radical?

Even accepting the argument that filibuster reform would backfire if the Democrats find themselves in the minority, isn't this price worth the institution of their popular agenda? (And sure, I understand that the Republican-controlled House necessarily limits their power, but still.)

My point here is that Democrats seem unwilling to take the final steps necessary to implement assault weapon, climate change, immigration, and other progressive legislation. They know that the opposition to their quite-popular agenda is the Republican Party, yet they can't seem to recognize that their policy implementation necessarily requires attacking their opponents.

Too often both parties seem to forget that politics itself is only a means to an end, and that the institution of policy is the ultimate goal. When the GOP has been in power, it has no problem pushing its agenda, such as tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the failed effort to privatize Social Security. Yet when the Democrats are in charge, they feel the need to hamstring themselves and not push full force. The Affordable Care Act, for example, while great in many ways, was completely watered down through Democratic attempts to include Republicans in its formation. And then the Republicans didn't vote for it anyway.

The Democratic party requires a strong opposition to keep it honest and respect the electorate. But it therefore needs to correlate the institution of its agenda with a defeat of that opposition. In other words, a political defeat of the Republican Party and the implementation of Obama's second-term agenda necessarily go hand in hand.

The Republican Party right now is only as strong as the Democrats allow it to be. The Republicans know this, which is why they are doubling down on efforts to swing elections in their favor through redistricting and voting restrictions -- moves that smack of real desperation. The Democrats thus need to stop them, even if it means dirtying their hands shaming their opposition.

It may not be pretty, and it may not be civil, but it is politics. Maybe if they play it right, the Democrats can actually implement their agenda when the nation has just elected them to do so.