Indulge a small fantasy: It is 1993, and Bill Clinton, about to become the first Democratic president in 12 years, meets with the men who control his party’s majorities in both Houses of Congress.
"Mr. President," say Senate
Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley, in
unison, "you are our leader. We hope you will consult with us, but
you make the final decisions. We have a united, disciplined party.
So when you say, ‘Jump,’ our only question will be
‘How high?’ "
A most unlikely fantasy. The
Democrats were not a united, disciplined party; senior Democrats on
Capitol Hill considered Clinton an interloper.
they been disciplined, united, and focused on policy instead of
their fiefdoms, we would now have some kind of national health
insurance system, modest but substantial increases in social
programs, a higher minimum wage, stronger anti-pollution laws, and,
in the West, more preservation of, and less resource extraction
from, the public land.
That’s what people who seek
power do when they get power. They use it.
Republicans are a united and disciplined party. They are focused on
policy. They have power, and so they are doing whatever they can,
which is almost (though not quite) whatever they please. Whoever is
thereby shocked demonstrates nothing but naiveté.
That naiveté is on display wherever Democrats and liberals
gather or express themselves, and it diverts attention from the
historic singularity of the present situation: Never before have
conservative Republicans effectively controlled the federal
Conservative Republicanism as we know it is
only some 60 years old. It was a reaction against the New Deal, and
remains in large part an effort to reverse it. From the birth of
conservative Republicanism until 2001, only during Dwight
Eisenhower’s first two years did a Republican president have
a Republican Congress. But Ike was a moderate who took more guff
from his own party’s conservatives than from the Democrats.
Richard Nixon was a moderate, too, and Democrats ruled
Congress while he was president. Ronald Reagan and a Republican
Senate were elected in 1980, but the House remained under
Democratic control. There were enough conservative Democrats for
Reagan to get much of his program through. But without control of
the House, Republicans could not thoroughly rewrite legislation in
House-Senate Conference Committees, as they do in this Congress.
In 1986, Republicans lost their Senate majority, and did
not recover it until the anti-Clinton landslide of 1994, when the
GOP took control of both houses. But until 2001, a Democratic
president contained them. Now very little contains them. Though
their majorities in both houses are small, they are acquiescent. On
most matters, when Bush says, "Jump," they ask only, "How high?"
On all levels, Bush and the Republicans are using their
power to solidify and extend that power. Bush is appointing very
conservative federal judges with lifetime tenure. The congressional
leadership regularly alters — or ignores — its own
rules to pass administration proposals. Republican officials in
Washington pressure state legislators to redraw congressional
district lines to enhance the GOP’s House majority. With
neither restraint nor shame, the White House and its congressional
followers press every advantage to the extreme in an obvious effort
to control all three branches of government far into the future.
Republicans are acting this way because they can. They
dominate the government and, despite their constant (and effective)
whining about "the liberal media," they dominate the conversation.
No party has exercised comparable control since 1965-66, when
Lyndon Johnson and huge Democratic majorities (295 to 140 in the
House) produced Medicare, Medicaid, and the War on Poverty.
At the time, Republicans argued that some of the new
programs were ill-advised and unworkable, and that the president
and his allies were riding roughshod over the minority
party’s rights. Those Republicans had a point. But then and
now, that’s how people with power behave. Then and now, the
people out of power complain that the rules are being broken. They
are, but what else is new?
angry about the Bush administration weakening wilderness protection
by administrative order applauded when the Clinton administration
attempted the de facto creation of new wilderness areas — via
the Roadless Rule — through executive order. Only losers care
Besides, it isn’t as though Bush
isn’t doing what he said he would. It isn’t his fault
that many observers thought "compassionate conservatism" meant
"moderate conservatism." Bush said he would cut taxes, open up more
public lands to drilling and logging, scrap the anti-ballistic
missile treaty, and appoint judges like Antonin Scalia and Clarence
Thomas. Yes, he also said he’d consider carbon monoxide a
pollutant and eschew nation-building. But Clinton said he’d
push for a middle-class tax cut.
Nor is it Bush’s
fault that the Democrats turned into a confused, frightened blob of
mush for so much of his presidency. People who don’t like
Bush’s policies can hope that the recent revival of
Democratic spunk survives at least until Election Day. They can go
to court if they think that the administration exceeds its
authority so egregiously that it is breaking the law. But there is
no point in complaining that an administration which has effective
control of the political process uses that control to enact its
policies and extend its power. That’s what it is supposed to