Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Democrats, Expectations and Governing

Lately, I've been reading a fascinating article in The New Republic by Jonathan Chait — "Why the Democrats Can't Govern."

It carries the subheadline, "Look who's killing Obama's agenda now."

"The last Democrat who held the White House, Bill Clinton, saw the core of his domestic agenda come to ruin, his political support collapse, and his failure spawn a massive Republican resurgence that made progressive reform impossible for a decade to come," writes Chait. "The Democrat who last held the White House before that, Jimmy Carter, saw the exact same thing happen to him."

That's a little simplistic for my taste, but it raises a significant point. Will Rogers, who has been dead for nearly 74 years, may have put it better: "I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat."

Let me backtrack a little and examine the approval ratings for three previous Democratic presidents when they took office after their elections.

Less than a week after he took office in 1993, Clinton's approval rating was 58%, according to Gallup. About two weeks after his inauguration in 1977, Carter's approval rating was 66%, according to Gallup. And, as we all know, Barack Obama's approval rating around the time he was sworn in exceeded Carter's.

The last Democratic president before Carter, Lyndon Johnson, became president following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, then he sought a full four–year term the following year. He won in a landslide and, around the time of his inauguration, Gallup reported that his approval rating was 70%.

Yet, despite these high approval ratings, Johnson, Carter and Clinton saw squabbles in their own party that contributed to midterm setbacks. In Clinton's case, the result was more than a party setback — it was a Republican takeover of both the House and Senate.

We haven't seen these kinds of problems when Republicans have been in charge. After they took control of Congress, Republicans had to wait six years until a Republican was in the White House, but once George W. Bush was in the Oval Office, Republicans put aside any differences they had and supported the White House's agenda.

You could argue all day and all night about whether the agenda was right, but there was little dissension among Republicans on most policies when they were being considered by the legislative branch.

In the public's mind, that creates the aura of unity. The intelligence that was behind the invasion of Iraq and the logic that allowed banks and corporations to make huge gambles that backfired may be called into question now, but, at the time the policies were debated in the halls of Congress, nary a dissenting voice could be heard from the Republican side. In fact, some Democrats lent their support.

"George W. Bush came to office having lost the popular vote, with only 50 Republicans in the Senate," Chait writes, pointing out that conventional wisdom suggested that Bush would have to cut back on his agenda. "Instead, Bush managed to enact several rounds of tax cuts that substantially exceeded those in his campaign platform, along with two war resolutions, a Medicare prescription drug benefit designed to maximize profits for the health care industry, energy legislation, education reform, and sundry other items. Whatever the substantive merits of this agenda, its passage represented an impressive feat of political leverage, accomplished through near–total partisan discipline."

You have to wonder sometimes if there is something in the Democratic DNA that kicks in when the Democrats are in charge and prevents them from enacting their proposals. After all, Democrats today hold about as many House seats as they did in Clinton's first two years in office — and, on the Senate side, with the two independents who caucus with them (and, presumably, Al Franken, if he is declared the official winner of the Minnesota Senate race), Democrats control more seats than they have since the Carter years.

Democrats should be able to push through their agenda, shouldn't they? Republicans did it with a lot less. Yet, as Chait observes, "[a]t a time when the country desperately needs a coherent response to the array of challenges it faces, the congressional arm of the Democratic Party remains mired in fecklessness, parochialism, and privilege."

This can lead to a president — even one who was elected overwhelmingly — appearing impotent to the public. And that can result in challenges within one's own party when the next presidential election cycle comes around. President Carter had to fight Sen. Edward Kennedy for his nomination in 1980. President Clinton managed to avoid a serious challenge, but his party had already lost control of Congress.

Republican incumbents, on the other hand, have had only one serious challenge to a sitting president in my lifetime — in 1976, when an unelected president (Ford) turned back the challenge from Ronald Reagan to win his party's nomination.

Forty-one years ago today, after narrowly winning the New Hampshire primary against the write–in insurgent candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, President Lyndon Johnson, at the end of a speech to the nation, dropped a political bombshell — "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president," Johnson told his stunned listeners. You can see it in the clip that is attached to this post.

It was a shocking statement from a man who, less than four years earlier, had received the highest percentage of the popular vote ever received by any presidential candidate. But two years after Johnson was elected, Democrats lost four Senate seats and nearly four dozen House seats. Democrats rebounded, for a time, during the Watergate era, but, in general, they struggled for the next four decades.

In Johnson's day, Democrats were a little more unified than they were in the 1970s, when Carter was president, or the 1990s, when Clinton was president, or even today. But their support for the Vietnam War was costly, and their support for civil rights led, as Johnson predicted, to the party's loss of the South for at least a generation.

The Democrats' legislative woes precede Johnson's presidency, however. Chait makes a good point when he says, "Democrats are trapped by their past."

Chait's explanation: "Since Democrats controlled the Congress almost continuously for more than 60 years beginning in 1933, the culture of Congress left a deeper imprint on their party. Republicans, shut out from the perks of majority status, finally decided ... that their only path to power lay in partisan discipline. Democrats, on the other hand, came of age under the old Democratic chieftains, and they have mostly aped that style. They do not fall in line, even under a Democratic president who mostly shares their goals."

Thus, even when the stakes are as great as they are in 2009, the party in power lacks the discipline to meet the challenge effectively. Obama frequently reminds listeners that he inherited these problems. That may be true, but how long will the voters, facing the prospects of losing their jobs and/or homes, be willing to accept that?

In 2010, a majority of voters may not be thinking that Obama inherited these problems. They may be thinking of something Rogers said back in the 1930s: "If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?"

By then, the problem for Democrats may be that voters will see an abundance of stupidity on display on the majority side.


Del Patterson said...

I am not buying what Chait is serving up. Almost like canned soup, he categorically places the Demos as a bunch of bumbling, splintered group. I assure you they aren't. First they couldn't have won the prez election without a cohesive leadership effort on the part of Howard Dean and his colleagues.

The Repubs have had control of the press (contrary Rush Limbaugh's constant lie). They have had the back of the Wall Street financial geniuses that got us where we are today, yet they have the spin doctors out there to make the demo look inept.

And of course the Repubs have used God, Guns, and anti-Gay as their mantra and it just sells good on 5th Avenue and the public square.

David said...


I understand what you're saying.

And I agree that Dean did a great job of winning the election. But winning an election and governing are two different things.

In our culture, perception is often reality. And I've seen the Democrats make many of the same mistakes they're making now when other Democrats were in the White House. In the past, the perception has been of a disorganized party and a leader who was ineffectual at providing leadership. That may have been unfair, but it was the image that was projected.

If this is "canned soup," as you call it, it is a can the Democrats have cheerily walked into again and again.