How Obama can get Democrats together, productively.
In this model, Obama’s professional goal, what he does every day at the office, is to forge agreements between these two sides of the Democratic Party, pushing each and not letting either one get away with dithering or with proposing bad ideas. The model Obama used with the House Republicans, “I will listen to your ideas, but they had better be good ones” takes exactly the right tone.
Where now does the dithering senator go? The Republicans are out of the circle, so now the Blue Dogs have nowhere to hide. I predict that if Obama can change the debate in this way, Blue Dog senators will try desperately to get Republicans back into the room, because they do not want to be outed as the real obstacles to success.
With the Republicans, not the liberal Democrats, out of the circle, the Republicans will have to work harder to get attention. The door for them to play a role is left open, should they desire to walk in. But the price of admission is a good idea and a willingness to back it up with a vote. But there will still be no logical reason for them to offer one up. Even if a Republican member wanted to vote with Obama, he or she would be looking toward a primary challenge, where the Republican base will have the power. By contrast, no matter how lame the Senate Democrats are, they will rise and fall with the Democratic agenda’s success. And an effective Democratic Congress will be able to highlight Republican obstruction.
Right now, Democrats are suffering everywhere in Congressional races, but it is the Blue Dogs, like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who are dead in the water, disliked by Republicans and deserted by Democrats. For the Senate Democrats to win, it is a matter of clarifying their interests, whereas for Republicans, it is a matter of accepting that their obstruction is perfectly rational.
Democrats in Congress are not stupid politicians. But they have, for many decades, lived as if the fortunes of their party do not affect their own political fortunes. That may be why it is so difficult to give them advice on how the party could be more successful. They don’t think that advice has anything to do with them.
But nowadays when a Democratic senator from the Northeast caves in, or announces that nothing can be done, it demoralizes Democratic voters in the Northwest and jeopardizes a colleague’s re-election. When a liberal Congressperson pops off, it may make it harder for a colleague in a border state to survive. And when the president’s agenda is working and seen as successful, every Democrat benefits. The knowledge that the party underlies individual success is the strongest message that Ronald Reagan brought to the Republican Party, and it may explain why so far 41 Republicans have been able to unite to effectively intimidate 59 Democrats and Independents in the Senate. It will take a Democratic president to make the point that unity in the party is essential and achievable.
This revised focus would offer the public a thoughtful, committed group of Democrats working day and night to get something done, while the Republicans sit on the sidelines. With Obama pushing, the liberals can’t posture about their dream bills, and the conservatives can’t hide behind the Republicans. They will be governing. It’s like those signs on the highway: “Your tax dollars at work.” It will visibly be: “Your Democrats at work.”
This is not about ideology, at least among Democrats. There is plenty of room among Democrats for a wide range of ideological beliefs. It is also not a way to help liberals to even the score with conservatives. This is about making the Democrats a productive, practical governing party. Voters care far less about which ideology wins than about which party can effectively solve problems. To get Republicans to vote for Obama’s proposals, the best way is not to negotiate with them to make bills weaker, but to negotiate among Democrats to develop legislation that would make Republican opposition politically costly.
Obama ran for the presidency saying he would change Washington. He thought changing Washington meant ending partisan strife. But in reality, his strategy has been based on the traditional Washington assumption that only Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats matter (watch who gets onto the Sunday talk shows). So if he follows my advice, he could actually challenge the prevailing wisdom.
The White House should encourage the Democratic leadership, especially in the Senate, to be tough. Challenge the rules and norms of the Senate. Talk about using the reconciliation process. Embarrass those who posture. Remind the members that they will all rise and fall together. No more excuses. A united party can get its way, no matter how many seats its majority contains.
This will not be easy to accomplish. After all, the White House helped create this situation. And congressional Democrats are by nature nervous and risk averse.
In his State of the Union address, Obama called out Democratic senators to get moving. He praised the House for moving things forward. These are good steps, but what was striking was that it was the first time he had defended the House or challenged the Senate. It will take consistency, determination and a lot of behind-the-scenes muscle to make the new posture stick. It’s never too late to make things right.
But this change cannot be achieved through speeches and pep talks alone. It will only happen through roll-up-the-sleeves work in the trenches. This football game won’t be won until some uniforms get scuffed up.
Emanuel, the chief of staff with brilliant tactical instincts, will have to decide if he is going to fight this new approach or join it. Is he willing to help President Obama lead a new, successful Democratic party, or will he fight a rear-guard action to keep the old model alive? Obama needs Emanuel’s negotiating skills, and he needs his oar pulling in the right direction.
If Obama pulls this off, he will be the leader he promised to be. And he will get things done. He doesn’t have to be LBJ, or Truman or FDR. He just has to be the best Obama he can be.
That will be more than enough.