Now that the bubbles are starting to go flat on the campaign champagne, Democrats need to start thinking–and quick–about what their agenda is and what sequence it ought to be dealt with. If I’m the Democrats, I actually go a bit slow on investigations–start using committee control to do the background research, but don’t start sending Henry Waxman out full bore yet. Doing otherwise looks vindictive. Waiting has the advantage that whatever revelations come out of oversight hearings will be even nearer the 2008 elections. I would also beg and plead with John Murtha not to challenge Steny Hoyer. Maybe there’s a good argument for it, but it changes the subject from what it ought to be. And nothing that changes the subject is a good idea.
Instead, I think it’s very important that Democrats hit the ground running with a small number of items with very large public support that will be very difficult for Republicans to stop (either by peeling off Dems or by getting Bush to veto) or will be politically damaging if they do. They are, in sequence:
a) Lobbying Reform (on this Dems. should be able to pass almost any bill, regardless of how much it favors them, so long as it says “lobbying reform” on it)
b) Earmark Reform.
c) Reform of House Ethics Committee. Having done (a), (b) and (c) in quick succession (and I mean within weeks), Dems will be able to say that they took the public’s desire for reform seriously. But, again, I think it’s very important that this happen very fast, while public expectations and attentiveness are high. Dems should not act like the voters gave them much rope.
Having done these three (preferably in the first month), Dems. should then move on to substantive issues on which there is large support for their position, even if the White House opposes it. They are:
a) Comprehensive immigration reform. I would make this truly comprehensive by adding very severe employer sanctions with a substantial budget to support enforcement. By passing comprehensive immigration reform, the Dems. show that they can do what the Republicans didn’t. And by adding the most severe employer sanctions possible, they put in place something that will make Republicans squirm, and perhaps attract a veto. Oh, and I also think this is good public policy: compared to border enforcement, sanctions on employers actually have a plausible theory behind them.
b) Allow the government to negotiate drug prices in Medicare Part D. I can’t imagine a Republican member of Congress who wants to run against ads in 2008 saying that he thought this was a bad idea. Do it before comprehensive reform of Medicare Part D (see below).
c) Pass an increase in the minimum wage (which I don’t think is a terribly fantastic idea, but it’s important to the party base).
d) Pass the remaining recommendations of the 9-11 commission.
None of these are, in my mind, of collosal importance. But they are all easy to do, and quickly. Dems should be able to get through the first tranche of reforms in their first month, and then move on to these in their second eight weeks. All of them have been exhaustively debated, so it isn’t as if substantial new vetting of the details is needed. Democrats should consult the White House as little as possible on them, to avoid being slowed up. Just send them up and dare Bush to veto.
It is very important that the party limit itself, to whatever degree it can, to these things and only these things, in roughly this order, so that they have maximum impact on the electorate. Then engage Bush on:
* Social Security reform. Don’t take anything off the table except private accounts. Everything, including cuts in benefits, is on the table. First and foremost, this lets Democrats look reasonable and bipartisan. Second, it needs to be done. Third, it is much better, if it needs to be done, that it be done when responsibility for it can be diffused across the two parties, than after 2008, when (we can hope) Democrats may have unified control of government, and all the responsibility will be on them. This will take a year or more, but as soon as they pass the items above, move on to this with a big flashy announcement. But be very careful about who is put on the panel–in particular, avoid John Breaux at all costs.
* Iraq. When Rumsfeld out, the most important architect of the Iraq disaster is already gone. The Baker-Hamilton commission is moving, and Democrats should basically get behind what they recommend, so long as it is reasonable. Despite most Democrats’ desire to pin the blame on the folks who screwed this up so badly, the most important duty of the party now is to help cauterize the wound. There will be plenty of time later in 2007 to start pulling out the really heavy investigative artillery. Having gotten behind a new strategy in Iraq in the first half of the year, Dems will be in a better position in the 2nd half to really start pinning the blame.
What Democrats should NOT do is go for any long bombs on domestic policy. The obvious one is still universal health care, which is the item that, more than any other, defines what it means to be a Democrat. Democrats should start setting themselves up to pass major comprehensive health care reform after the 2008 election. There’s no point trying to pass anything major on this now (since Bush would veto anything ambitious) but two years gives the party a long time to hold hearings, consider various different proposals, etc., and have a well-designed bill with strong party support ready as soon as a new (Democratic) president is sworn in. It would also give a presidential candidate a major piece of legislation to go to the voters with in 2008. The party should also look very closely at Jacob Hacker’s proposals for broad-based reform and expansion of social insurance, which you can read about here.
None of the items identified above command less than overwhelming party support. That’s why they should be put first and foremost. Democrats should insist that it is their agenda which has privileged access to the floor. Democrats should be especially wary about passing major procedural reform, at least early on. This is especially the case because come 2009, if they try to make a big push on health care, they may need all the procedural muscle they can get. Hopefully the “ethics” provisions described above should take the Mugwump pressure off the party to loosen up Congressional procedure.
Some of the comments here pick up on my suggestion that Democrats take the opportunity of divided government to make a deal on Social Security, questioning why we should do anything. I’m on record as saying that I think that most of the criticisms of the program are bull, and that private accounts are a terrible idea, even on libertarian principles. That all said, Social Security does have an (often overstated but real) financing problem. It’s better to deal with it sooner rather than later. It’s better to deal with it under divided government, when the blame for some painful measures can be diffused. The problems with Medicare are also real, but they are largely a function of the larger American system of health care delivery and insurance, which are better dealt with comprehensively, as part of a program of universal coverage. The people who think that Social Security is just fine honestly just don’t understand the numbers, or are so tired (as I am) of the Chicken Little-Pete Peterson overstatement that they’ve been driven to deny that there’s ANY problem. The financing problem in SS isn’t that complicated, requires some fairly modest adjustments, but needs to be done, and the sooner the better.
In short–modest, caution and bipartisanship now. Gain the trust of the voters by doing things with broad-based support, and that put Republicans in a bad light. Then start thinking Second New Deal in 2009.