Progressives Poised to Take Control of the Democratic Party
In its widely-circulated August profile of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Time noted, "House Democrats have been more unified in their voting than at any other time in the past quarter-century, with members on average voting the party line 88 percent of the time in 2005." The numbers don't lie. But they do obscure a little-discussed truth: Divisions in the Democratic Party are sure to grow larger, whether the party wins or loses the mid-term elections.
For the better part of 20 years, Democratic divisions have seethed under America's political surface, with only the rare contested presidential primary providing a release valve. Any number of self-defeating pathologies emanating from inside the Democratic Party have worked to raise the temperature: From President Bill Clinton's embrace of corporate-written trade deals that crushed the party's working-class base to congressional Democrats' complicity in the Iraq War and rejection of the growing anti-war movement, Democratic Party elites have gotten used to kicking the party base in the face.
The situation is ready to explode. What the late Paul Wellstone called the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" is growing feisty. And progressives are increasingly in a position to flex their muscles thanks to a convergence of factors: the rise of Internet fundraising, the ascendancy of blog and vlog (video blog) media and the crushing economic forces that are radicalizing previously apolitical middle-class constituencies. These developments have exposed the Democratic establishment to the same kind of pressure that conservative grassroots activists have exerted on the Republican Party to great electoral success.
Nowhere was this changing dynamic more on display than in Connecticut's recent Democratic senatorial primary and its aftermath. Businessman Ned Lamont -- a first-time statewide candidate -- toppled 18-year incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman after running a campaign against Lieberman's support for the Iraq War, Social Security privatization and lobbyist-written trade deals that have decimated the Nutmeg State's manufacturing economy. Lamont was grossly outspent thanks to Lieberman's corporate-funded war chest, but he built a grassroots campaign by tapping into his party's newly energized voters.
In response, a frightened Democratic Party in Washington tried to pretend nothing happened. Like frustrated children covering their ears and yelling "I can't hear you!," Democratic senators welcomed Lieberman back to their caucus after the summer recess -- even though Lieberman announced he was abandoning his party to run in the general election against the Democratic nominee. Though many Democratic lawmakers officially endorsed Lamont, many also suggested to reporters they were still hoping for a Lieberman victory in the general election. That Lieberman ran to the media to berate his party, likened his opponent to a terrorist sympathizer and declared his refusal to endorse down-ballot Democrats in other races seemed of little interest to Democrats comfortably insulated in the Senate club.
But theirs is a false sense of comfort. Whether the Democrats win or lose on November 7, the party is in for a wild ride.
If they win
When the hangover from election night clears, a Democratic-controlled Congress will face a giant faultline between its senior members and its rank-and-file. The chairmen of key committees are among the most progressive lawmakers in Congress. Further, these are senior legislators who have been waiting for a chance at the majority for years -- not rookies who will take up their gavels with no ideas about what they want to do. And they will be bolstered by the emerging progressive technological and grassroots infrastructure that provided the keys to mid-term victory.
The hotspots will likely arise on the panels that oversee the most ideological issues and have the most progressive chairmen. In the House, that's the Ways and Means Committee (taxes and trade), the Energy and Commerce Committee (health care and energy), the Education and Workforce Committee (education and pensions) and the Judiciary Committee (civil liberties and potentially impeachment), expected to be headed by Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel (N.Y.), John Dingell (Mich.), George Miller (Calif.) and John Conyers (Mich.), respectively. In the Senate, that's the Armed Services Committee (Iraq) and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (all of the above), expected to be chaired by Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Ted Kennedy (Mass.), respectively.
What will happen, for instance, when Chairman Miller pushes through legislation that outlaws the most vicious of Corporate America's pension cutback schemes? Will people like Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) -- who has bragged about starting his own K Street Project -- lead the opposition? How about when Chairman Levin introduces a resolution demanding an exit strategy from Iraq? Will he face a battle not only with Republicans, but with Democrats backed by neoliberal, pro-war think tanks like the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)? And what about when the Bush administration sends down its next corporate-written trade deal? Will Democrats have the unity to defeat it? The answer is that progressives will certainly have a decent chance of enacting their agenda -- but not without bruising fights within the Democratic caucus.
To be sure, important areas of unity exist on consensus issues like raising the minimum wage. And the non-ideological committees will be in a position to make significant, unimpeded progress. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees, respectively headed by Rep. Dave Obey (Wis.) and Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), will have little trouble ripping up President Bush's draconian budgets and forcing him to either accept or veto substantial funding increases to health care and education programs. Similarly, a House Government Reform Committee headed by firebrand Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) will have the backing of every Democrat who wants to see the Bush administration investigated on a wide variety of non-ideological issues like war profiteering and corruption.
Nonetheless, a Democratic majority will not have the luxury of avoiding the issues that divide it. At a time of stagnating wages and a job outsourcing crisis, continuing to skirt the subject of globalization and international economic policy would likely result in the shortest-lived congressional majority in American history. And besides, a potentially growing faction of Democratic lawmakers will demand action one way or the other. If, for instance, Democratic Senate candidates Jon Tester (Mont.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bob Casey (Pa.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Lamont are victorious, they will add to an existing bloc of senators that is already planning to demand reforms to America's trade policy.
In this fluid majority scenario, the progressive movement that exists outside the Democratic Party will be more important than it is now -- but only if it serves as a progressive ideological force, and not simply a partisan one. If organizations like Moveon.org, unions and the consumer/environmental/civil rights advocacy groups are willing to prioritize their policy agendas over the Democratic Party insiders' desire simply to win the next election through expediency, the progressive movement will become a kingmaker that lawmakers will rely on for their survival and success. Say goodbye to the era of Democratic lawmakers laughing off the grassroots like they did after the Lamont primary victory, and say hello to Democratic lawmakers pleading for grassroots support.
But, again, getting to that point will require the progressive movement to be comfortable not just going up against Republicans, but going up against lawmakers of both parties who cross its agenda. And if recent trends are any indication, the progressive movement is more than ready to assume this role. The Lieberman primary as well as other lower-tier primaries against Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Al Wynn (D-Md.) indicate that progressives are not about to allow a Democratic majority to become complacent. On the contrary -- Democratic legislators could be scrutinized even more closely by progressives.
If they lose
If circular firing squad competitions were an Olympic sport, Democrats' typical post-election behavior would make them gold medal contenders. This is a party that has a lot of practice blaming each other -- and in particular, a lot of experience watching the conservative, Big Money wing of the party dishonestly stereotype progressives as the reason for electoral defeat.
After the 2000 election, DLC chief Al From viciously attacked fellow DLCer Al Gore for supposedly being too populist (so much for loyalty). It didn't matter that after Gore's Democratic convention speech -- arguably the most populist moment of his candidacy -- he surged in the polls. What mattered to the Washington insiders was they could use his 2000 election loss as an excuse to publicly berate progressives.
If Democrats somehow manage to seize a mid-term loss from the jaws of victory in 2006, the DLC will undoubtedly again fabricate a storyline that blames it entirely on progressives. Somehow, we will be expected to believe that even though polls show a strong majority of Americans are angry with the Bush White House and want an exit strategy from Iraq, Democrats will have lost because they didn't outhawk Bush by pushing the war even more aggressively than him. The DLC will issue a glossy report titled something like "Democrats Lost Because They Refused to Embrace the Politics of Genghis Khan" and then publish an accompanying book of essays by the DLC's political "experts" entitled "Embracing Our Inner Genghis: A Blueprint for Democratic Victory in 2008."
But this time around, progressives won't have to take the distortions sitting down. With the party insisting on running its 2006 campaign without embracing the kind of bold economic, health care, anti-corruption and national security stances the public wants, a very compelling case can be made that the party lost the election because it projected weakness and timidity. And unlike in the past, the case will be made in a forceful manner by a strengthened base that has become increasingly influential, thanks to its growing power as a fundraising and grassroots political resource.
All of this will play out not just in the C-SPAN symposiums that the DLC feeds on, but also in Congress, most acutely in the House. There, Pelosi has steadfastly represented the progressive wing of the party, using her platform as minority leader to push her caucus away from K Street's influence and towards a far more populist agenda. At every turn, however, she has been undermined by the likes of Hoyer. When she pushed Democrats to take a serious position on the Iraq War, Hoyer berated her efforts to the Washington Post. When she worked to distance the caucus from corporate lobbyists, Hoyer pitched himself in news stories as the Democrats' chief point of contact for the lobbying community. When she tried to stop the credit card industry-written bankruptcy bill, Hoyer refused to help and instead voted for the abomination. The list goes on.
Hoyer's behavior has been simultaneously ideological and tactical. The antithesis of a conviction politician, he is the quintessential backroom dealer -- a lawmaker who in an earlier era would have had a snappy, all-too-friendly nickname among the smoky back room crowd. His political moves have clearly made Big Business happy, and they have also positioned him to make a renewed case for his own promotion after a mid-term election loss. In short, his constant pecking at Pelosi is all about his being able to argue "I told you so" if Democrats lose -- and then making a run against her for minority leader with the full backing of the Wall Street wing of the party. In all likelihood, this is the very scenario Hoyer privately dreams of, because if Democrats win the House, he's going to have his hands full with Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) who has already announced his intention to run against Hoyer for Majority Leader.
Pelosi will certainly be on the ropes with a Hoyer challenge and a mid-term election loss. But will the progressive movement mobilize to preserve her status as leader? It's a safe bet that Hoyer, who is a polarizing figure inside the Democratic caucus, will not be allowed to waltz to the top unchallenged. That leaves either a surprise run for leader from one of the senior progressives like Miller or Obey, or more likely, an attempt by professional self-promoter Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.). Either way, an unpredictable situation will ensue -- one where the ideological poles of the party will each use leadership candidates as vehicles to express their aspirations.
It goes without saying that a Democratic victory in 2006 would be much better for progressives and the country as a whole. The fights and problems that will come with a win are the enviable troubles of political riches, rather than political poverty. But progressives must not be tricked by the usual Democratic Party propaganda that promises a utopia after the election. No matter what the outcome on November 7, a new fight begins on November 8.