Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Former President Clinton liked to call himself “a different kind of Democrat,” meaning he sometimes swerved around the ramparts erected by liberals in his party, obstacles that often blocked the path to the center lane of the political freeway. Democrats in Congress today also behave “differently,” but without Mr. Clinton’s sometimes “moderate” driving record and with an obstructionist mentality that undercuts the way the minority party has historically operated on Capitol Hill.

Yes, something is different now: The legislative equivalent of “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.” Based on historical precedent, congressional Democrats’ rhetoric and tactics are both unusually harsh and highly negative. Their legislative strategies shock and bewilder some Republicans and conservatives — but better get used to it. It’s part of a broader political transformation that won’t change at least until Democrats nominate a presidential candidate in 2008. If Democrats get lucky, they’ll put forward someone who constructively redirects their increasingly angry and radical left. Instead of harnessingliberal enthusiasm to build a new majority coalition, today’s congressional leaders are uncritically adopting the left’s extreme tactics, rhetoric and litmus tests.

WhenPresident Bush announced his Social Security reforms earlier this year, Democrats looked like they ran out of legislative ammunition. They had no alternative, no competing plan; it was a “dog ate my homework” kind of policy response. But from a communications standpoint, they were loaded for bear, emptying clip after clip of rhetorical bullets at the White House. In the past, firing with symbolic shots would have been an unacceptable response.

For example, when Republicans served in the House minority, they routinely crafted comprehensive “substitutes” debated on the floor. These alternatives routinely went down in flames on party-line votes. “We used to call them the Comprehensive Republican Alternative Proposals — or C.R.A.P. — because they never won,” a former House leadership aide jokingly recounted. “Or sometimes,just ‘the losing’ amendment.”

No more. Democrats rarely offer comprehensive alternatives to major Republican initiatives, choosing instead to propose politically embarrassing rifle-shot amendments or none at all. Coordination between the Democratic leadership in the House and their members on the Rules Committee has reached unprecedented levels, GOP leadership aides tell me. Democratic amendments filed for House consideration are often mysteriously withdrawn at the last minute to focus the most politically discomforting choices for Republicans on the floor.

Last week’s House debate about the creation of a bicameral select committee to evaluate the federal response to Hurricane Katrina is another example of Democrats playing by new rules. Even though the new select committee was structured almost identically to the Iran-Contra panel Democrats created in 1987, party leaders rejected the plan, demanding instead an independent commission or a committee with equal partisan ratios. The response begs a number of questions about the role and necessity of Congress. Maybe Democrats also want a commission to decide the fate of John Roberts or how much money to spend on Hurricane Katrina relief?

Today’s Democrats either studied a new kind of math or play by different rules. As Rep. Clay Shaw of Florida said during last week’s debate, when he was in the minority, “we would have rejoiced at getting these ratios.” Failure to offer substantive alternatives or boycotting the process altogether deny America’s citizenry something important in the public-policy arena — an opportunity to evaluate competing ideas.

Republicans and conservatives sometimes sentimentally yearn for the good old days, wondering why Democrats don’t play by the old rules. No such luck. Some of the loudest and most influential voices in the Democratic Party — such as Simon Rosenberg of the New Democratic Network, and blogger Markos Moulitsas from the Daily Kos — care more about creating acrimony than alternatives. These activists dominate party voters, volunteers and contributors, and their message to Democratic congressional leaders is clear — combat yes, consensus no.

As Howard Fineman wrote in Newsweek recently, Mr. Rosenberg and his new Democratic allies argue success lies “not (in) ideological purity but combativeness.” The “left” wants Democratic lawmakers to erect barriers blocking the party’s move to the center and to hamper cooperation; congressional leaders have clearly heard the request and already started construction — a political public-works project that won’t stop anytime soon.

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