Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The passage of the Republican Party’s Medicare/prescription drug bill — and its support by the AARP — is by far the most convincing evidence to date that the political center of gravity in Washington is shifting definitively to the GOP for the first time since the pre-FDR era.

While the mood of the country as a whole has shifted back and forth between Republican and Democratic over the decades, the effective exercise of power (particularly domestic policy power) in Washington has been tenaciously held on to by the Democrats since they acquired it in the early 1930s. (The GOP sometimes passed a few major conservative items in the first year after an election, such as Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and Newt Gingrich’s Contract.)

So complete was the FDR Democrats’ acquisitionof power in this city, that it has until now withstood the erosive assaults of Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Gingrich. Their total possession of the federal government from 1932-1946 engendered and brought to maturity the Democratic Party’s sense of a birthright to power.

The first cornerstone of their actual power was, of course, the presidencies of FDR and Truman from 1932-1952. Their second cornerstone was control of the House of Representatives (the purse strings of government) for 40 straight years (and 58 of the 62 years) prior to the Republican take over in 1994. (They also controlled the Senate for almost as many of those years.) The third cornerstone was their domination, both physical and spiritual, of the unofficial power sources of Washington: the great law firms, lobbyists, trade associations, publicists, news organs, federal bureaucracies and think tanks. The fourth cornerstone was, in fact, their sense of a birthright to power. Republican presidents, when they came to Washington, couldn’t deny that birthright, and felt like self-conscious interlopers — playing a perpetual away game against the hometown team.

Even when the first and second cornerstones (the White House and Congress) were taken away, the Democratic power edifice stood firmly on the real, but less visible, remaining ones. But slowly, the remaining cornerstones have begun to crumble, as the Democrats have become more attenuated in time from the House of Representatives — for 40 years their bulwark — and are frozen out of the remaining government. The Republicans — first, Newt Gingrich and now Tom DeLay and Speaker Denny Hastert — have been persistently prying the cold, almost dead, Democratic fingers off the law firms, lobbyists and trade associations. (They also have given and received succor from the new media of cable news, talk radio, the Internet and the now legions of conservative commentators.)

The Republicans have also begun doing to Democrats what Democrats did to Republicans for half a century — cutting them out of both the information and influence loop on legislation. The Medicare legislative process is a prime example. Over the last few months, when ranking Democratic congressmen and senators have spoken before vital trade associations, they have been unable to tell their audiences the status of Medicare legislation, for the simple reason that they have been cut out of the negotiations. On the other hand, key Republicans have been able to provide up-to-the-minute insights into the decision-making that can make or break whole industries.

Eventually, notwithstanding any old sentiments or friendships, these trade associations were forced to do business with the only party that is currently in business in Washington — the Republicans. (That dominance is strengthened by the assumption of all political players that the GOP will control the House at least until after the next reapportionment in 2010.) That is the significance of the AARP decision to cut a deal with the GOP on the Democrats’ signature issue of Medicare — and why the Democrats howled with agony at the sight.

It’s not just the AARP. As Michael T. Heaney of the University of Chicago has written in The Washington Times, 14 of the top 25 health care-related grass-roots trade associations ended up doing business with and supporting the Republicans on Medicare . Only six opposed, and most of them were unions, such as the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and the United Auto Workers. (The unions will be the last interests to leave the Democrats.)

Power is, of course, never complete and always changing. But as the Republicans continue to peel away more and more pieces of the remaining Democratic influence in Washington, more and more Democratic senators and congressmen will feel compelled to work with, and vote with, the Republicans on legislation. Crumbs are better than starvation. The remaining loyal Democrats will sound ever more shrill and thus unfit to govern — pungent adjectives being the last resort of a minority party.

So, the political center of gravity in Washington will continue to shift toward the Republicans. And the longer this process continues, the harder it will be for the Democrats to regain power — as the Republicans have learned by their bitter experience of the last half-century. But Republicans should not forget that of which the Romans used to remind themselves: Sic transit gloria mundi (the glories of this world are fleeting.)

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