Features » October 30, 2006
No matter what happens election day, Democrats are in for a wild ride in 2007
In its widely-circulated August profile of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Time noted, “House Democrats have been more unified in their voting than at any other time in the past quarter-century, with members on average voting the party line 88 percent of the time in 2005.” The numbers don’t lie. But they do obscure a little-discussed truth: Divisions in the Democratic Party are sure to grow larger, whether the party wins or loses the mid-term elections.
For the better part of 20 years, Democratic divisions have seethed under America’s political surface, with only the rare contested presidential primary providing a release valve. Any number of self-defeating pathologies emanating from inside the Democratic Party have worked to raise the temperature: From President Bill Clinton’s embrace of corporate-written trade deals that crushed the party’s working-class base to congressional Democrats’ complicity in the Iraq War and rejection of the growing anti-war movement, Democratic Party elites have gotten used to kicking the party base in the face.
The situation is ready to explode. What the late Paul Wellstone called the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” is growing feisty. And progressives are increasingly in a position to flex their muscles thanks to a convergence of factors: the rise of Internet fundraising, the ascendancy of blog and vlog (video blog) media and the crushing economic forces that are radicalizing previously apolitical middle-class constituencies. These developments have exposed the Democratic establishment to the same kind of pressure that conservative grassroots activists have exerted on the Republican Party to great electoral success.
Nowhere was this changing dynamic more on display than in Connecticut’s recent Democratic senatorial primary and its aftermath. Businessman Ned Lamont–a first-time statewide candidate–toppled 18-year incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman after running a campaign against Lieberman’s support for the Iraq War, Social Security privatization and lobbyist-written trade deals that have decimated the Nutmeg State’s manufacturing economy. Lamont was grossly outspent thanks to Lieberman’s corporate-funded war chest, but he built a grassroots campaign by tapping into his party’s newly energized voters.
In response, a frightened Democratic Party in Washington tried to pretend nothing happened. Like frustrated children covering their ears and yelling “I can’t hear you!,” Democratic senators welcomed Lieberman back to their caucus after the summer recess–even though Lieberman announced he was abandoning his party to run in the general election against the Democratic nominee. Though many Democratic lawmakers officially endorsed Lamont, many also suggested to reporters they were still hoping for a Lieberman victory in the general election. That Lieberman ran to the media to berate his party, likened his opponent to a terrorist sympathizer and declared his refusal to endorse down-ballot Democrats in other races seemed of little interest to Democrats comfortably insulated in the Senate club.
But theirs is a false sense of comfort. Whether the Democrats win or lose on November 7, the party is in for a wild ride.
If they win
When the hangover from election night clears, a Democratic-controlled Congress will face a giant faultline between its senior members and its rank-and-file. The chairmen of key committees are among the most progressive lawmakers in Congress. Further, these are senior legislators who have been waiting for a chance at the majority for years–not rookies who will take up their gavels with no ideas about what they want to do. And they will be bolstered by the emerging progressive technological and grassroots infrastructure that provided the keys to mid-term victory.
The hotspots will likely arise on the panels that oversee the most ideological issues and have the most progressive chairmen. In the House, that’s the Ways and Means Committee (taxes and trade), the Energy and Commerce Committee (health care and energy), the Education and Workforce Committee (education and pensions) and the Judiciary Committee (civil liberties and potentially impeachment), expected to be headed by Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel (N.Y.), John Dingell (Mich.), George Miller (Calif.) and John Conyers (Mich.), respectively. In the Senate, that’s the Armed Services Committee (Iraq) and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (all of the above), expected to be chaired by Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Ted Kennedy (Mass.), respectively.
What will happen, for instance, when Chairman Miller pushes through legislation that outlaws the most vicious of Corporate America’s pension cutback schemes? Will people like Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)–who has bragged about starting his own K Street Project–lead the opposition? How about when Chairman Levin introduces a resolution demanding an exit strategy from Iraq? Will he face a battle not only with Republicans, but with Democrats backed by neoliberal, pro-war think tanks like the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)? And what about when the Bush administration sends down its next corporate-written trade deal? Will Democrats have the unity to defeat it? The answer is that progressives will certainly have a decent chance of enacting their agenda–but not without bruising fights within the Democratic caucus.
To be sure, important areas of unity exist on consensus issues like raising the minimum wage. And the non-ideological committees will be in a position to make significant, unimpeded progress. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees, respectively headed by Rep. Dave Obey (Wis.) and Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), will have little trouble ripping up President Bush’s draconian budgets and forcing him to either accept or veto substantial funding increases to health care and education programs. Similarly, a House Government Reform Committee headed by firebrand Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) will have the backing of every Democrat who wants to see the Bush administration investigated on a wide variety of non-ideological issues like war profiteering and corruption.
Nonetheless, a Democratic majority will not have the luxury of avoiding the issues that divide it. At a time of stagnating wages and a job outsourcing crisis, continuing to skirt the subject of globalization and international economic policy would likely result in the shortest-lived congressional majority in American history. And besides, a potentially growing faction of Democratic lawmakers will demand action one way or the other. If, for instance, Democratic Senate candidates Jon Tester (Mont.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bob Casey (Pa.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Lamont are victorious, they will add to an existing bloc of senators that is already planning to demand reforms to America’s trade policy.
David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a staff writer at PandoDaily and a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover, co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.