Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Democrats learn the art of opposition (Amy Sullivan)

The always interesting Democratic journalist (and semi-sociologist) Amy Sullivan makes a characteristically intelligent, well informed, and thought-provoking argument that the Democrats are genuinely getting their act together as a serious opposition ... and the mass media are largely missing it, mostly because it is hard for them to break loose from their familiar frames and clichés: "Not as Lame as You Think: Democrats learn the art of opposition" (Washington Monthly).

Some highlights...

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What the GOP did so brilliantly in 1994 was exploit Clinton's weaknesses (his 1993 tax increase, his wife's failed health-care initiative), as well as the sense among voters that reigning congressional Democrats had become complacent and corrupt (reviving the Keating Five and House banking scandals). Well, guess what? This is precisely what congressional Democrats have been getting better at doing over the past 18 months. And just as most observers missed the coming Republican revolution in 1994, so they're missing a similar insurgency today. [....]
For years now, one of the knocks on Democrats has been that they don't know how to function as an opposition party, that they still behave as if they're governing. During the first few years of the Bush administration, even stalwart liberals like Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) worked with Republicans on legislation like Medicare reform, time and again—like Charlie Brown and Lucy—making a run at impacting policy. And their response to bruising partisanship was, as a rule, puzzling meekness. (So much so that this magazine ran a story in early 2002 called “Why Can't the Democrats Get Tough?”)
But that changed with the heartbreaking loss in 2004. The defeat of Daschle, the nice-guy Democratic leader, and the nasty tactics of the campaign against him particularly outraged congressional Democrats. The anger was only compounded by the party's new degree of powerlessness. They didn't control a single thing in Washington—not the House or the Senate or the White House. Autocratic GOP chairmen turned off their microphones at hearings, reporters ignored their press conferences, and late-night comedians used them as the butt of every joke, a kind of institutional Kato Kaelin. And the base was mad as well; everywhere Democrats turned, they got an earful from activists and funders who wanted the party to fight back, to kick some ass. In the end, Democrats snapped. [....]

In 2002 and 2003, Joshua Micah Marshall wrote a series of articles for this magazine about the myth of Republican competence. In one of those pieces, he referenced Thomas Kuhn's famous paradigm theory, which maintains that people can hold fast to a theory or narrative even as vast amounts of contradictory evidence piles up. At the time, there were plenty of indications pointing to GOP missteps and policy failures. But Republican message discipline, and a general awe of the Bush White House's corporate authority model, ruled the day. Everyone “knew” the Bush administration was a well-oiled machine. It took three more years, more than 2300 U.S. troops dead in Iraq, a botched relief effort for Hurricane Katrina victims, and the vice president shooting a guy in the face for the narrative to change. Yes, it is possible for conventional wisdom to be that wrong.
So it is that Democrats can be “hopelessly divided” while voting together 88 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly; just one percentage point lower than the vaunted lock-step Republican caucus. They can be “pathetically ineffective” while dealing a humiliating defeat to the president's biggest domestic policy effort. They can be deemed “weak” and “timid” while setting the terms of the debate for pulling troops out of Iraq.
It seems the only way this particular narrative is going to change is with a Democratic victory in November. “They'll have to pay attention to us if we win,” Slaughter told me. Taking back either house of Congress while battling the idea that they're a weak, ineffective party with no ideas won't be easy for Democrats. But stranger things have happened. Just ask Newt Gingrich.
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Could be. Read the whole thing. (And also this item by Kevin Drum.)
--Jeff Weintraub

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