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.
But had 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.
The 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 government.
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?
Western environmentalists 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 about process.
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 do.
Jon Margolis covers the blues — and the reds — from Vermont.