The Senate Democrats: Enablers of the GOP

The Washington Post presents us with a thoroughly depressing story today on the inability of Congressional Democrats to come together on a political strategy for fighting against one of the most reviled Presidents in American history.

But the story reveals the heart of the problem: the Senate Democrats’ inability to understand how to create a narrative.

House Democrats are of course frustrated at the Senate’s inability to break GOP filibusters, with Charlie Rangel justifiably accusing the Senators of Stockholm Syndrome. This morning the GOP filibuster on the energy bill was sustained by one vote.

But Evan Bayh’s response is revealing:

Asked about his decision on government funding, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) groused to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call: “I’ll tell you how soon I will make a decision when I know how soon the Senate sells us out.” Senate Democrats have fired back, accusing Pelosi and her liberal allies of sending over legislation that they know cannot pass in the Senate, and of making demands that will not gain any GOP votes. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) noted that, this summer, Reid employed just the kind of theatrics Rangel and other House Democrats are demanding, holding the Senate open all night, pulling out cots and forcing a dusk-till-dawn debate on an Iraq war withdrawal measure before a vote on war funding. Democrats gained not a single vote after the all-night antics.

“I understand the frustration; we’re frustrated, too,” Bayh said. “But holding a bunch of Kabuki theater doesn’t get anything done.”

It is simply laughable that Bayh (and by implication, the rest of the Democratic caucus) seem to think that pulling out the cots for one night is the same as really trying to break a filibuster. John Aravosis has really hit the nail on the head with this one:

The current crop of Democrats don’t know how to fight. They’re afraid to fight, they’re incompetent at fighting, and they’re incapable of fighting because they don’t know how to fight. They think that issuing a press release with the right talking points is fighting back. They think that holding a simple press conference on the Hill will generate a news story. And they think that a single, or even a week’s worth, of news stories is a victory. They simply do not understand what the Republicans all know too well – how to take a story, a theme, and jam it down your opponents’ throats for weeks, if not months, if not years, on end. To a Democrat, if you get a blurb in the Washington Post, one day, that’s a public relations victory. To a Republican, once that blurb is repeated every day for 30 years then they declare victory.

One night of cots isn’t going to do it. The GOP blocked the legislation because it repealed oil-industry tax breaks that have no effect on supplies and are simply corporate welfare. Let the Republicans sit there, day after day, week after week, explaining why they think that protecting oil companies is more important than achiving energy independence. This is good political theater. Its visuals will be good. Let them do it over Christmas. Through January. Create the narrative.

If the President vetoes the bill–great! Let him do it. Energy independence shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but it is: the Democrats are for it, and the Republicans are against it. Say it: over and over and over again.

Mitch McConnell claims that the bill is a tax hike–that’s their narrative. And now Reid is going to introduce the bill without the oil company breaks in it, allowing them to stick with their narrative that they have blocked a tax hike. And since the Dems have only tried it once, that narrative sticks. Instead, the narrative should be: the Democrats want revenues to go to the US government, and the Republicans want it to go to the Saudis.

And this all reinforces what might be called the uber-narrative of tough Republicans standing up and weak Democrats caving.

As Mark would say: Feh.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.