By Eugene Lyons
Nobody asked, but if I were a congressional Democrat, I’d have two New Year’s resolutions. One: No more Mr. Bipartisan Nice Guy. Two: Less substance, more political theater.
If you haven’t noticed, 2008 is an election year. Democrats hold small majorities in both Houses. Hence mewling cries are being heard that ugly partisan wrangling is preventing Americans from joining together in one big joyous hootenanny and solving all our problems.
One Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, appears to be basing his campaign on this fond delusion, although his “bipartisanship” consists largely of attacking rivals’ motives while recycling right-wing scare stories like the imaginary Social Security “crisis,” then offering himself as a healer. It’s the old Adlai Stevenson/Jimmy Carter too-pure-for-politics pose. Hearing it from a career Chicago politician may be a bit much, but there’s always an audience for sentimentality.
But the most insistent proponents of mushmelon bipartisanship are pundits like the Washington Post’s David Broder, forever cautioning Democrats about the political perils of not giving President Bush whatever he wants. “The Dean” recently cautioned Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that “public approval ratings for Congress have sunk below their level when Republicans were still in control,” warning that “in less than a year, the voters will deliver their own verdict.”
Now, as even Broder concedes, Democrats in Congress are measurably more popular than Republicans (40 percent favorable to 32 percent). They also exceed President Bush’s favorability ratings, which remain near rock bottom. Diehard GOP partisans aside, most Americans have basically given up on this White House and are simply waiting for Bush to go away.
Polls also show that on most critical issues – Iraq, health care, energy policy, etc. – healthy majorities favor Democratic solutions. To the extent congressional Democrats are unpopular, it’s mainly their failure to end the Iraq War. It’s become common to hear denunciations of Democratic “cowardice” on the issue.
Call me jaded, but my attitude can best be summarized by something the late Sen. Bobby Kennedy told a friend of mine: “You don’t have to be a genius to succeed in politics, but you do have to be able to count.”
The reason congressional Democrats haven’t ended the war is that President Bush won’t budge, and they simply can’t make him. He plans to pass the whole mess on to his successor along with (he hopes) the blame for whatever disasters follow U.S. withdrawal. Alas, getting out of Baghdad won’t be as simple as issuing 150,000 airline tickets. Pulling the plug on war funding has melodramatic appeal, but it wouldn’t be a real-world option even if the Democratic leadership had the votes, which they manifestly do not.
That’s true on a whole host of issues. Democrats not only can’t muster the two-thirds vote needed to override presidential vetoes, with a narrow 50-49 Senate majority, they often can’t generate the 60 votes needed to bring issues to a final vote. It’s a fact Washington journalists appear oddly loath to share with the public. The word “filibuster” doesn’t appear in Broder’s column. Yet Senate Republicans have already broken the single-term historical record, and the session’s not half over.
Remember the so-called “nuclear option”? The phrase was Sen. Trent Lott’s, R-Miss. Holding a 55-44 majority in 2005, Republicans were unable to invoke cloture, i.e., muster the 60 votes needed to force up-or-down votes on a handful of Bush’s crackpot judicial appointments. This they denounced as an insult to Dear Leader and an affront to democracy. They floated a plan to change Senate rules allowing unlimited debate until the bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators came to a compromise in which Democrats promised to filibuster very rarely.
With Democrats now holding a narrow 50-49 majority, Lott’s attitude has changed. “The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail,” he chuckles, “... and so far it’s working for us.” According to the Campaign for America’s Future, the Republican minority has filibustered 63 pieces of legislation out of existence.
“That’s like breaking the single-season home-run record before the All-Star break,” comments Steve Benen on his Thecarpetbaggerreport.com blog. Among them were bills not only aimed at ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq but extending health insurance to millions of children, empowering Medicare to bargain for lower drug prices, repealing the ban on embryonic stem-cell research, etc.
Yet voters don’t know it, partly because the media has all but quit using the term “filibuster.” Also because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whether for reasons of comity or efficiency, routinely invokes cloture votes that let the GOP minority win without a struggle.
Well, enough being responsible. They want to filibuster? Fine. Make them put on a show. Let Republicans talk all they want about the evils of children’s health insurance. Voters always claim they want solemn debate, but what gets their attention is cheap theater.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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