In American politics, exceedingly few positions generate overwhelming agreement across the ideological spectrum. Even propositions that ought to be uncontroversial — such as whether there is scientific evidence for evolution or whether Saddam Hussein personally planned the 9/11 attacks — produce sizable portions of the citizenry lined up on each side. One notable exception to this rule is the issue of whether the current U.S. Congress is doing a poor job. That question produces a remarkable consensus that is close to unanimous.
That a Democratic Congress is so deeply unpopular even among Democrats may be historically unusual, but it is hardly surprising or difficult to understand. On key issue after key issue, it is the Bush White House and Republican caucus that have received virtually everything they wanted from Congress, while the base of the Democratic Party has received virtually nothing other than disappointment and an overt repudiation of its agenda. Since the American people gave them control of Congress, the Democrats in Congress have given the country the following:
Unlimited and unconditional funding for the Iraq war. Vast new warrantless eavesdropping powers and retroactive amnesty for their telecom donors — measures the administration tried, but failed, to obtain from the GOP Congress. The ability to ignore congressional subpoenas with utter impunity. A resolution formally decreeing parts of the Iranian government to be a “terrorist organization.” A failure to outlaw waterboarding, to apply the torture ban to the CIA, to restore the habeas corpus rights abolished by the Military Commissions Act of 2006, to impose the requirement of congressional approval before President Bush can attack Iran. Confirmation of highly controversial Bush nominees, including Michael Mukasey as attorney general even after he embraced the most radical Bush theories of executive power and repeatedly refused to say that waterboarding was torture.
Other than (arguably) the resignation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general and a very modest increase in the minimum wage (enacted in the first month after Democrats took control of Congress), one is hard-pressed to identify a single event or issue since November 2006 that would have been meaningfully different had the GOP retained control of Congress. The Congress of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi has been every bit as passive, impotent and complicit as the Congress of Bill Frist and Denny Hastert was. Worse, in contrast to the Frist/Hastert-led Congress, which at least had the excuse that it enabled a wartime president from its own party while he enjoyed high approval ratings, the Reid/Pelosi Congress has capitulated to every presidential whim despite an “opposition party” president who is now one of the most unpopular in modern American history. It’s difficult to imagine how even Reid and Pelosi themselves could contest the claim that the Democratic-led Congress, from the perspective of Democratic voters, has been a profound failure.
With those depressing facts assembled, the only question worth asking among those who are so dissatisfied with congressional Democrats is this: What can be done to change this conduct? As proved by the 2006 midterm elections — which the Democrats dominated in a historically lopsided manner — mindlessly electing more Democrats to Congress will not improve anything. Such uncritical support for the party is actually likely to have the opposite effect. It’s axiomatic that rewarding politicians — which is what will happen if congressional Democrats end up with more seats and greater control after 2008 than they had after 2006 — only ensures that they will continue the same behavior. If, after spending two years accommodating one extremist policy after the next favored by the right, congressional Democrats become further entrenched in their power by winning even more seats, what would one expect them to do other than conclude that this approach works and therefore continue to pursue it?
If simply voting for more Democrats will achieve nothing in the way of meaningful change, what, if anything, will? At minimum, two steps are required to begin to influence Democratic leaders to change course: 1) Impose a real political price that they must pay when they capitulate to — or actively embrace — the right’s agenda and ignore the political values of their base, and 2) decrease the power and influence of the conservative “Blue Dog” contingent within the Democratic caucus, who have proved excessively willing to accommodate the excesses of the Bush administration, by selecting their members for defeat and removing them from office. And that means running progressive challengers against them in primaries, or targeting them with critical ads, even if doing so, in isolated cases, risks the loss of a Democratic seat in Congress.
Those goals are the basis of the recent campaign that I helped launch — along with progressive bloggers such as Jane Hamsher and the Blue America PAC — to target selected Democratic members of Congress who have been responsible for some of the worst acts of complicity and capitulation. The campaign we launched, which raised over $350,000 in a very short time largely from dissatisfied progressives, has run multimedia ads criticizing the likes of Blue Dog Rep. Chris Carney and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, despite the fact that neither has a primary challenger and despite the fact that Carney is quite vulnerable in his reelection effort this year.
The Blue America campaign also ran ads against Blue Dog Rep. John Barrow in Georgia, who did have a progressive primary challenger, state Sen. Regina Thomas. It was always clear that Barrow was highly likely to defeat Thomas in the primary. It was also clear that if Thomas beat the odds and won the primary, her chances of beating the Republican in the general election was far less than the chances of the more conservative and incumbent Barrow, who himself had to fight hard to win reelection in 2006. Knowing that a Barrow defeat in the primary might make a Republican win more likely in November, Blue America nonetheless ran ads against him. We believed that even if Barrow prevailed in his primary (as he ultimately did), the ad campaign against him would undermine his reputation in his district and could thus force Barrow, the Blue Dog caucus and the Democratic leadership to devote far more resources to defending his seat for November. That is what it means to attach a price to trampling on the political values of Democratic supporters.
Barrow and the two other two solidly pro-war Democrats targeted — Carney and Hoyer — were not merely supporters, but vocal and active leaders, of the effort to have Congress give to George W. Bush the sweeping new warrantless eavesdropping powers and telecom immunity Bush demanded. Why would any progressive want to see that behavior rewarded by having those three safely reelected? Given the certainty of Democratic control under all circumstances, what possible benefit comes from their seamless return to power?
Many progressives and other Democratic supporters are reflexively opposed to any conduct that might result in the defeat of even a single, relatively inconsequential Democratic member of Congress or the transfer of even a single district to GOP control. No matter how dissatisfied such individuals might be with the Democratic Congress, they are unwilling to do anything different to change what they claim to find so unsatisfactory. Even though uncritically cheering on any and every candidate with a “D” after his or her name has resulted in virtually nothing positive — and much that is negative — many progressives continue, rather bafflingly and stubbornly, to insist that if they just keep doing the same thing (cheering for the election of more and more Democrats), then somehow, someday, something different might occur. But, as the cliché teaches, repeatedly engaging in the same conduct and expecting different results is the very definition of foolishness.
As foolish as it is, this intense aversion to jeopardizing any Democratic incumbents might be considered rational if doing so carried the risk of restoring Republican control of Congress. But there is no such risk, and there will be none for the foreseeable future. No matter what happens, the Democrats, by all accounts, are going to control both houses of Congress after the 2008 election. Their margin in the House, which is currently 31 seats, will, by even the most conservative estimates, increase to at least 50 seats. No advertising campaign or activist group could possibly swing control of Congress to the Republicans this year, and — given the Brezhnev-era-like reelection rates for incumbents in America — it is extremely unlikely that the House will be controlled by anyone other than Steny Hoyer, Rahm Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi for years to come.
The critical question, then, is not who will control Congress. The Democrats will. That is a given. The vital question is what they will do with that control — specifically, will they continue to maintain and increase their own power by accommodating the right, or will they be more responsive, accountable and attentive to the political values of their base?
As long as they know that progressives will blindly support their candidates no matter what they do, then it will only be rational for congressional Democrats to ignore progressives and move as far to the right as they can. With the blind, unconditional support of Democrats securely in their back pocket, Democratic leaders will quite rationally conclude that the optimal way to increase their own power, to transform more Republican districts into Blue Dog Democratic seats, and thereby make themselves more secure in their leadership positions, is to move their caucus to the right. Because the principal concern of Democratic leaders is to maintain and increase their own power, they will always do what they perceive is most effective in achieving that goal, which right now means moving their caucus to the right to protect their Blue Dogs and elect new ones.
That is precisely what has happened over the past two years. It is why a functional right-wing majority has dominated the House notwithstanding the change of party control — and the change in direction — that American voters thought they were mandating in 2006. As progressive activist Matt Stoller put it, “Blue Dogs are the swing voting block in the House, they are self-described conservatives, and they are perfectly willing to use their status on every action considered by the House.” The more the Democratic leadership accommodates the Blue Dog caucus — the more their power relies upon expanding their numbers through the increase of Blue Dog seats — the less relevant will be the question of which party controls Congress.
The linchpin for that destructive strategy is uncritical progressive support for congressional Democrats. That is what ensures that Democratic leaders will continue to pursue a rightward-moving strategy as the key to consolidating their own power. Right now, when it comes time to decide whether to capitulate to the demands of the right, Beltway Democrats think: “If we capitulate, that is one less issue the GOP can use to harm our Blue Dogs.” And they have no countervailing consideration to weigh against that, because they perceive — accurately — that there is no cost to capitulating, only benefits from doing so, because progressives will blindly support their candidates no matter what they do. That is the strategic calculus that must change if the behavior of Democrats in Congress is to change.
Democratic leaders must learn that they cannot increase their majority in Congress by trampling on the political values of their own base. It’s crucial that they understand that they will not gain seats, but will lose seats, the more they accommodate the right’s agenda. That, in turn, will happen only if progressives target for defeat selected members of the Democratic caucus who are responsible for that right-wing-enabling behavior. That is the only way to eliminate the incentive for the Democratic leadership to continue to follow the strategy of increasing their own power by mimicking Republicans. Those who disagree with that — who object that it is oh-so-terrible to cause the defeat of any Democratic incumbents, no matter how complicit and irrelevant — have the responsibility to identify what alternative strategy they think should be pursued in order to alter the behavior of the Democratic Party in Congress.
Defeating scattered, individual Democratic incumbents — even if it means that a Republican wins — will result in nothing negative. What is the difference — specifically — if Steny Hoyer and Rahm Emanuel have a 43-seat margin of control rather than a 56-seat margin? There is no difference. Far more important than the size of the Democrats’ majority is the question of who is dominating and controlling that majority.
At the moment, the Blue Dog contingent is dominant in the Democratic caucus and drives much of what the caucus does. The more Blue Dogs there are in the Democratic caucus, the more dominant they will be. Changing the face of Congress requires, first and foremost, that the face of the Democratic caucus change, that its strategic incentive scheme be altered. Until progressives make Democratic leaders pay a price for their allegiance to the right’s agenda — the only price that politicians recognize: having their power diminished and jeopardized — then none of this will change. It will only continue to worsen.