Wayne O’Leary

Party Time

The summer’s endless kabuki dance over health-care reform has established indelible public impressions of the two American political parties, neither of them very flattering. Here’s what’s become apparent: The Republicans are borderline insane, but also cunning, resourceful, and unscrupulous; the Democrats are laden with good intentions, but also inconstant, irresolute, and ineffectual. Republicans absolutely know what they think, even if what they think is nonsense; Democrats kind of know what they think, but are either reluctant to express it openly or are constantly adjusting it to fit changing circumstances.

The dichotomy has made the battle over health reform, to date, an unequal one. If memory serves, it was Bill Clinton who once suggested that wrong but strong beats right but weak every time. Republicans represent a distinct minority of American society: political, economic, and social conservatives. Yet, corporate elitists and religious fundamentalists alike, they share a common rightist ideology that gives them strength beyond their numbers. What they believe to their core is this: the federal government, including all its works, is bad, if not evil, and must be opposed at every turn.

The Democrats are altogether something else. They can project no united front because they have few shared values beyond the mutual desire to gain and keep office. Broadly speaking, with gradations in between, there are liberal-labor Democrats (now called progressives), who believe in updating the New Deal and Great Society, and conservative Democrats (“Blue Dogs”) — the corporate media insist on calling them moderates or centrists — who are practically Republicans when it comes to fiscal matters and issues of federal power, and who happily work both sides of the aisle, voting with the opposition much of the time.

Incredibly, there exist party members, usually self-styled pragmatists of no discernable ideology, who brag about the big-tent aspects of this loose, disparate coalition, as if it were somehow commendable. “I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat” is the popular saying, usually attributed to Will Rogers. It’s ironically funny, unless you’re trying to enact something basic and essential like health reform.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde split personality of the Democrats (liberal tribunes of the people coexisting in the same political organism with centrist-conservative servants of the corporations) extends far back in party history — at least a hundred years or more to the struggles over populism and progressivism. Every modern Democratic president since FDR has had to deal with a resistant conservative congressional wing, usually southern, acting as a dead weight against socioeconomic progress.

What’s different today is that key party operatives like Rahm Emanuel, former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and current presidential chief of staff, deliberately contrived to perpetuate and accentuate the schism for reasons too clever by half. In the last two election cycles, Emanuel recruited most of the congressional Blue Dogs now frustrating administration objectives, when he sought out red-state nominees more in tune with local values and regional interests than with the national party’s predominant liberal philosophy; they may not have been traditional liberals, but (the reasoning went) they could win.

They did win, producing a majority and realizing Emanuel’s subsidiary purpose of diluting liberal influence and making the party more “pragmatic” or centrist. But the theory that the winners could subsequently be cajoled or pressured into abandoning narrow parochialism and made to conform to a broader, slightly more progressive agenda once in Washington has proven a strategic and tactical blunder. So the Democrats are now a two-headed monster with no clear sense of direction, while the GOP, which has no comparable liberal wing resisting its conservative desires — Republican dissenters, unlike Democratic ones, are immediately purged — presents a clear, direct (if brain-dead) philosophical stance.

The Catch-22 for the Democrats is that they have achieved a party majority, but not an ideological majority, and one seems to preclude the other. Failing the coming of a legislative genius, another Lyndon Johnson or Ted Kennedy, momentum automatically swings to the Republicans, a united party without internal contradictions. The solid phalanx that is the GOP in Congress resembles the Spartans at Thermopylae; Republicans can’t win, but they can bleed the majority Democrats (the Persians in this analogy) interminably and keep them from advancing an agenda. That’s why we’re in health-care gridlock.

Faced with “the fierce urgency of now,” Democrats could adopt Republican tactics by shunting aside their Blue Dog recalcitrants, embracing a 51-vote strategy in the Senate, and relying on their coherent, inspired liberal base to force through progressive reform; it would be audacious, but it might very well work. It’s also what Republicans would do in their place. Instead, starting with the administration, they seem bound and determined to accept the current conventional wisdom that bipartisan consensus is universally essential and the specious argument that 60 votes are somehow required to pass laws in the Senate.

Only in recent times has the ludicrous 60-vote requirement taken on credence. Nowhere does the Constitution mention any such super majority except to override presidential vetoes or approve treaties; it’s purely a product of the Senate’s arcane procedures, a legalistic device to apply “cloture” to minority filibusters, which were regularly used up until the 1960s to talk legislation (principally civil-rights bills) to death. In 1975, the votes needed to achieve cloture were reduced from two-thirds to three-fifths - - or 60 of the 100 senators. Now, the magic 60 is used as an all- purpose, quasi-legal club held over the heads of the majority by the minority; the mere threat of a filibuster (as by GOP health-care reform opponents) is enough to invoke the 60-vote “rule” for legislative action.

Majority Democrats need to toss this relic, which is probably unconstitutional, over the side, rewrite or reinterpret Senate rules, and call the bluff of a health-care filibuster. Let the country see Republicans openly and brazenly holding up the people’s business. It would be an educational spectacle shining the bright light of transparency on the usually secretive and undemocratic proceedings of “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Most especially, for the Democrats, it would force a needed day of reckoning upon a party that has come to consider splitting the difference the ultimate political virtue. Democrats would have to decide who they are and where their priorities lie, an unnerving prospect for some, but, ultimately, an edifying one.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2009


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