THE BLOG
08/09/2007 05:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Waking Up to a Working Republican Majority

This post is cross-posted on OpenLeft, a strategy site for progressives.

I'm beginning to explore an idea that I'm not entirely sold on, which is that in the House, while Democrats are in control, there is effectively a Republican working majority. If true, this has a number of implications, both electoral and political. But first, I'll illustrate my thinking, which basically boils down to the fact that politically speaking, Bush is effectively using the surge model to govern in all policy arenas. Take tax policy.

President Bush said yesterday that he is considering a fresh plan to cut tax rates for U.S. corporations to make them more competitive around the world, an initiative that could further inflame a battle with the Democratic Congress over spending and taxes and help define the remainder of his tenure.

Advisers presented Bush with a series of ideas to restructure corporate taxes, possibly eliminating narrowly targeted breaks to pay for a broader, across-the-board rate cut. In an interview with a small group of journalists afterward, Bush said he was "inclined" to send a corporate tax package to Congress, although he expressed uncertainty about its political viability.

It's a simple pattern. When Bush loses ground politically, he simply changes his ask. It's the equivalent of negotiating with someone to sell them a bike for $50, and when they find a problem with the bike, changing the price to $75 and negotiating the final price to $65. It's bad faith negotiating, but it's working, because Democratic leaders aren't able to walk away from the table out of a mixture of fear, incompetence, and insufficient liberal voting strength. They always stupidly buy the bike at the higher price.

The FISA bill debacle is a good example. I've been in email contact with a variety of sources inside the House, and there's certainly tremendous bitterness at what happened with FISA, as well as a recognition that the 'stand up and cave' rhetoric strategy is now a clear pattern for this Congress. Steny Hoyer is the weak link in the House leadership, and though I can't read tea leaves that well, I think that Blue Dogs are essentially threatening a revolt against Pelosi if she tries to impose real discipline. In addition, the Senate is making it nearly impossible for her to stand up for liberalism. With a reactionary Senate that has about 10 neoconservative Democrats and a neoconservative President, liberals cannot govern except on the most clear-cut and non-controversial issues, like poor children's health care (which itself might be vetoed).

So while we may have thought we gained a check on Bush in 2006, we actually didn't. What we gained was a more progressive Democratic Party, but we started from such a low base that the Republicans essentially can still govern. Now, holding the majority is nice for subpoena power, and that matters. But when you combine a conservative Senate, a Blue Dog swing block, and an extreme White House, you may have a situation similar to the Boll Weevil Democrats in the early 1980s and their working relationship with Reagan. I'm not sure how well the analogy holds up since I've never studied that period in history, but regardless, Bush has realized that his conservative governing mandate is still intact.

In 2006, the midterms registered a clear antiwar message, but instead of listening, Bush surged troops, and politically speaking, it worked. No one stopped him. Bush, weaker than he's ever been as President in terms of popular approval and credibility, is governing this country through a mix of veto threats, bad faith negotiating tactics via surrogates like Mike McConnell and David Patraeus, and Blue Dogs. This is true with Bush's rampant lawbreaking and authoritarian criminal impulses. No one stops him. I'm no longer content to think that Blue Dogs are acting out of fear of being criticized, at this point I am going to take the Heath Shuler's at their word and recognize them as right-wingers.

To be clear, there's reason for optimism, as this is a temporary situation and we've made enormous progress since 2002. There are more self-identified liberals today than there have been since 1972, independents are swinging far to the left, and the base Democratic vote is making the difference in elections. The Democratic Party of 2007 is much more progressive than that of 2002, and at the rate we're gaining reliable liberal votes (10/year), there will be an unbreakable progressive House majority by 2012. The overall intellectual environment, the shattering of the right-wing careerist foreign policy community, the increasing efficiency of liberal advocacy groups, the increased participation of progressive economy sectors in the political sector, and the liberalization of the White House and Senate, can also have significant effects. Our politicians are obviously behind the curve, with Clinton quasi-supporting the surge and Obama in his most recent Iowa ad doesn"t call himself a Democrat. But this is temporary.

I don't have a good strategy on how to 'fix' the Senate, but to get to a progressive working majority in the House, we need to pick up 41 more reliable votes, either by beating Republicans or by converting or beating Blue Dog Democrats. If we can get to an uncompromising progressive majority in the House, then the Senate will be dragged along through conference committees and a Democratic White House. In the Senate, we'll need 16 for a clear progressive majority, but because of institutional dynamics we'll probably need less to have a working majority.

There are several paths to making this happen in the House.

Pick Up Safe Seats Progressives: This is what we are trying to do in Massachusetts 5th, where a reactionary Niki Tsongas is facing four other candidates, including progressive Jamie Eldridge. There's also a primary in TN-09, Harold Ford's old haunt.

Convert Reactionary Democrats: Both Al Wynn and Ellen Tauscher are good examples of how this can be done, and this is continuing against Daniel Lipinski, Al Wynn, and Henry Cuellar.

Beat Republicans: In 2006, Democrats picked up 30 seats in the House. Out of those pickups, 11 voted for the FISA expansion, and 19 didn't.

Convert Republicans: I'm not sure how this is supposed to work. Americans Against the Escalation in Iraq is trying to crack Republicans, but this is very very difficult. Republicans have run right-wing primary challenges against dissidents for 30 years, since 1978. Countering that is extremely tough, though recent moves by the Mainstream Partnership could have effects.

If there is a Republican working majority, with the Blue Dogs as the swing group, that should have one very significant effect on our strategy. In a House with a minority role for Democrats, electing a Blue Dog Democrat is far superior than electing a Republican. But in a majority Democratic House where conservatives have a governing working majority, electing a Blue Dog Democrat is little different than electing a Republican when it comes to public policy choices. Electing a Blue Dog is not going to help us restore out Constitutional fabric, hold these people accountable, deal with global warming, energy, health care, or restore a progressive tax code. More significantly, more Blue Dogs aren't going to give someone like Pelosi the leverage she needs to do any of these things.

What this means is clear. No longer should we as progressives particularly care whether a Democrat is in a swing district or Republican district when considering how to evaluate them. It is more important to elect progressives and destroy the power of Blue Dogs than to increase our partisan advantage in the House, though these goals are complements and not substitutes. The Colorado example, of turning a libertarian-esque red state into a Blue Dog state at the behest of wealthy billionaires, is not something to emulate. Rather, we should look at the New Hampshire example, which has turned a libertarian-esque red state into a deep blue progressive libertarian area.

There's one other important rhetorical consequence here. When Blue Dogs vote with Bush, they are not 'betraying' us any more than Republicans are when they vote with Bush. Blue Dogs just don't agree with us. And when they vote to expand wiretapping or to cut taxes for the wealthy or to support endless war, they are acting like Blue Dogs, and Blue Dogs support President Bush and the conservative movement.