WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Two weeks ago, lots of folks were predicting that Scott Brown would win the next day’s election. I don’t think as many people predicted (I didn’t) that by February it would still be left to Washington Kremlinologists to try to figure out what exactly Obama, Pelosi, and Reid want to see happen, and how quickly, on healthcare. I thought by February, the American people, let alone the American Congress, would have a clear idea what the leadership wanted to see. I definitely would not have predicted that an hour after the vote Barney Frank would be on TV talking about scuttling the bill.

It’s like a thousand-times-magnified version of the 2006 dust-up over who would chair the Intelligence Committee in the new Democratic majority. It didn’t captivate the media, but it did provide a slow burn of embarrassing stories for the Speaker-to-be speculating whether she would tap hawkish Harman or impeached-as-a-judge Hastings. In the end, she went with the 3rd most senior Democrat. In the weeks it took Pelosi to make that call, I kept wondering: Why didn’t Pelosi mull this one over ahead of time in October when it looked clear she was headed to victory?

Speaking of what Dems should do now, Jon Stewart got at something last week: “No matter what you do, the Republicans are not going to let you into the station wagon. They’re never going to let you in. And here’s the worst part: You’re the majority. It’s your car!”

If Pelosi and Reid’s folks are indeed working on how to make the reconciliation sidecar work (we can only hope), now would be a good time to be reminding the members why it’s gotta happen. Nature abhors your vacuum, but Dick Armey doesn’t.

Advertisements

CINDY SHEEHAN: NOT SO PROGRESSIVE

More surprising than Cindy Sheehan’s return from her ostensible break from activism is her willingness to embrace conservative cant against the income tax:

The Federal Reserve, permanent federal (and unconstitutional) income taxes, Japanese Concentration Camps and, not one, but two atom bombs dropped on the innocent citizens of Japan were brought to us via the Democrats.

The 16th amendment empowers the majority to legislate against subjugation and plutocracy. It institutes a critical tool to confront on the badges of slavery abjured in the 13th amendment and realize the equal protection promised in the 14th.

Cindy Sheehan’s inane legal argument and her outrageous ethical argument against the income tax are disappointing. What’s more discouraging is skimming through the comments and realizing that taking on Nancy Pelosi arouses more outrage from DailyKos commenters than taking on the income tax.

GOTCHA GOTTA GO? NO.

Apparently, Sam Waterston has ended his much-lamented silence in American political discourse and spoken out to urge his adoring fans to heed the call of the “American idealists” at Unity08. They’re the folks who believe that all the scourges of modern American politics – special interest-driven corruption, nasty gotcha politics, the belief that women’s rights is a crucial issue – could be beaten back if only there was a presidential ticket composed not of Democrats or Republicans but of one of each, and chosen not by people who turn out in primaries but by people who turn out in primaries held over the internet by “American idealists.”

For those stubborn folks for whom Sam Waterson having “looked at it closely”, isn’t sufficient evidence that Unity08 “could save this country we love,” some obvious questions present themselves. Well, a lot of obvious questions.

Here’s one: Would a decline in gotcha politics really go hand in hand with a decline in corruption?

The conflation of the two is commonplace in media narratives grasping for any explanation of voter disgust with Congress that doesn’t involve the kinds of laws the Congress is passing or isn’t. But I think the irony here is that one of few functional bulwarks against rampant corruption in Washington is gotcha politics.

If our elected officials were circumspect about not disparaging the character of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, would the likes of Conrad Burns and Bob Ney have gone down to defeat? Would incoming legislators, new and old, have as much reason to fear following in their footsteps? Quotes from CREW’s Melanie Sloan in and of themselves are simply not enough to grab media and voter attention, let alone overcome all the advantages of incumbency. What helps the charges stick? Relentless criticism from the folks with a chance, at least sometimes, of getting heard: your challenger, and your fellow elected officials. If you don’t have to fear getting gotcha-ed, there’s more cause to do gotcha-worthy things.

Now of course it would be nice to truly venal behavior by elected officials got called out on both sides of the aisle. It’s simply not credible to claim, as the Unity08 folks and much of the media do, that both parties have the same track record on this. Compare the treatment of Bill Jefferson (D-LA) and Tom DeLay (R-TX) by their party leaders. One lost his committee chairmanship. The other was positioned for a good stretch to remain Majority Leader. Unfortunately, opinion leaders who can count more adherents than Sam Waterston delight in the myth that the two parties are bearers of equal and opposite corruption, and that that corruption – the reward of money with power and of power with money – has no relationship to ideology.

That said, when elected officials do speak in one voice across party lines, it’s as often to unite across party lines in defense of questionable congressional practices as in condemnation of them. Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert stood together in a show of bipartisanship to condemn the FBI search of Jefferson’s office. Senators and congressmen of both parties stand together to raise their salaries swiftly and quietly. They stand firm in bipartisan defense of gerrymandering congressional districts. That’s because no matter how otherwise representative your member of congress is of you, she will always be fundamentally unrepresentative in that she is herself a member of congress. Dave Barry once said the best way to get great Nielson ratings would be to make a sitcom about a Nielson family. Similarly, if you’re looking to find policies that members of Congress acorss the political spectrum will support, the right place to start is with policies that make it easier, more enjoyable, and more permanent to be a member of Congress. If you want to see those policies stop, bemoaning gotcha politics is not the place to start.

A TASTE OF (GENDERED) TROPES TO COME

Two choice insights from a minute of talk radio on the Harman v. Hastings face-off for Intelligence Chair:

“Nancy Pelosi and Jane Harman are in a cat fight.”

“Nancy Pelosi is like Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde – she just has a thing for gangsters.”

Just remember kids: W Stands for Women.

DEEP FREEZE

The past week has offered the odd spectacle of Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert standing shoulder to shoulder in defending a Democratic congressman’s supposed right not to have criminal investigators raid his office. On the law, I think they’re on the wrong side. As Akhil Amar (whose lecture was one of the only courses my bro and I took together) writes:

W.J. is a target of a criminal corruption investigation, and if criminally charged, he would have no more Arrest Clause protection than any of the countless other sitting Congress members who have been criminally prosecuted over the years—Dan Rostenkowski, Duke Cunningham, and Tom DeLay, to name just three. Since W.J. has no immunity from an ordinary criminal arrest, it is hard to see why he has some kind of blanket immunity from an ordinary criminal search to uncover evidence of his suspected crime. If other white-collar suspects are vulnerable to office searches, why is William Jefferson any different?

In terms of political strategy, Hastert’s move (and the zeal of Sensenbrenner et al to follow him) is noteworthy because Jefferson’s case was the only one (contra John Solomon) offering serious ammunition for the Republicans’ claim that the current crop of corruption is a bipartisan problem. Had Hastert and company wanted, with a media establishment all too eager to expound on the “everybody does it narrative,” they could have a primed a whole raft of stories this week to the effect that Democrats and Republicans both have to get their houses in order, and the only difference is that the Democrats’ house includes a refrigerator with $90,000 hidden inside. That claim is bogus (and it’s worth noting that Jefferson is as “New Democrat” as they get), but it would have gotten traction nonetheless.

So the Republican leadership could not have passed on it lightly. Apparently, they decided that a week of reinforcing the idea that Democrats are equally corrupt was worth less than a week of reinforcing the idea that members of Congress have the right not to be aggressively investigated. The fact that of the two opportunities, the Republicans chose to spend this week lying the groundwork for the idea that congressmen have special privacy rights (and seeming civic-minded for throwing a fit in defense of a Democrat) suggests that they expect a slew of additional Republican congressmen to come under investigation. And chances are they’re right.

What’s harder to explain is Nancy Pelosi’s choice to get on board with the whole exercise. Presumably, she sees in this debacle a chance to exacerbate intra-GOP tensions and reinforce a narrative of executive overreach by the Bush administration. But when it comes to dividing the party on itself over raids like this one, she can only get in the way. And when it comes to taking a stand against executive overreach, the rights of congressmen are the last place the American people want or need the Democrats to assert themselves. As Barney Frank said on the floor:

I think, in particular, for the leadership of this House, which has stood idly by while this administration has ignored the rights of citizens, to then say we have special rights as Members of Congress is wholly inappropriate.

The Jefferson case, inconvenient as it is, allows the Democratic leaders to differentiate themselves from their Republican counterparts. Pelosi can and should condemn William Jefferson in terms that Dennis Hastert will never condemn Tom DeLay. That’s because the nexus of corporate interest and political power that does so much to breed corruption in Washington is one which undergirds the modern Republican party and which, for all the efforts of some Democrats to cozy up to it, is fundamentally opposed to the long-term interests of the Democratic party.

Pelosi did the right thing by calling on William Jefferson to resign. She could drawn a further contrast by coming out strongly against Hastert’s claim of special privilege for him. Just as Hastert has more credibility defending the supposed privacy rights of a member of the opposition, Pelosi would have more credibility denying those claims when applied to a member of her own party. Instead, look for Dennis Hastert to invoke the Jefferson precedent to call on Nancy Pelosi to join him in throwing up roadblocks to a full investigation of another crooked colleague – or perhaps of Hastert himself.

PIN THE TAIL ON THE ELITE

There’s a lot that could be said about Matt Bai’s NYT Mag profile of Mark Warner, which unsurprisingly says as much about Bai as about Warner. Bai’s faith in the conservatism of the average American, and the culpability of the uber-rich liberals in wrecking the Democrats’ appeal, will be familiar to anyone who read his chiding critique of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s book for considering structural obstacles to Democratic resurgence when the problem was obviously those liberal Hollywood celebrities and crazed bloggers stopping the party from offering Americans what they actually want. What struck me most on reading the article was the way that Bai’s choice of anecdotes reinforces his narrative – which may also be a reflection of Warner sharing anecdotes that reinforce a similar one.

Bai notes Warner’s plans to reform Medicare and his “embrace of free trade,” as things which will antagonize that infernal liberal elite, even though, as his readers may recall from the 2004 election, the party’s coterie of fund-raisers and policy wonks and strategists and spin-meisters are not known for their support for including labor standards in trade agreements. Warner’s belief that eroding entitlements in the solution to global competition seems more likely to put him on a collision course with the low-income voters who depend on our social insurance net and who’ve borne the burden of neoliberal trade policy. But there’s no gesture towards such a confrontation in Bai’s piece; instead we get an anecdote about his being hectored by elitist liberals at a Bay Area dinner party:

Warner thought his liberal guests would be interested in his policies to improve Virginia schools and raise the standard of living in rural areas; instead, it seemed to him, they thought that they understood poverty and race in an intellectual way that he, as a red-state governor, could not…as some of the guests walked Warner to his car, one woman vowed to educate him on abortion rights. That was all he could take. “This is why America hates Democrats,” a frustrated Warner blurted out before driving away. (Still piqued a month later, Warner, speaking to The Los Angeles Times, summarized the attitude of the assembled guests about their plans to save the country: “You little Virginia Democrat, how can you understand the great opportunities we have?”)

To read this story, and Bai’s article, you would think the only people to the left of Mark Warner are Bay Area elitists with cash left over from their brie purchases to distort the primary process. Of course, Matt Bai isn’t the only elite journalist committed to a vision in which his self-styled centrism is the will of the masses and those to his left are an insular elite. Michael Crowley, in a TNR piece on the tensions between Steny Hoyer’s more TNR-friendly war position and Nancy Pelosi’s, chose to describe Pelosi’s inner circle this way:

In addition to her top confidant, the combative Miller, others with Pelosi’s ear include Rosa DeLauro of New Haven; Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto; and Jan Schakowsky, a fiery crusader from Chicago’s upscale Lakefront area. All are critical of the war.

Now I’ve had the pleasure over the past four years of discovering all kinds of things for which New Haven should be nationally known. But it isn’t. Probably, as many TNR readers recognize Lakefront as New Haven. So Crowley could as helpfully written about “Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, Jan Schakowsky of Lakefront, and Rosa DeLauro, whose New Haven, CT district represents a largely low-income constituency.” I’m curious why he decided instead to specify how “upscale” Lakefront is. But maybe that just makes me part of the reason people hate Democrats.

PET ISSUES

A characteristic comment from Kos:

we won’t have a governing majority until the energy expended in pursuing pet interests gets redirected toward getting Republicans out of power and getting Democrats — even some of the imperfect ones — elected to replace them…take a look at the new progressive organizations arising the past few years — MoveOn, the blogs, Democracy for America, National Political Hip Hop Conference, etc — all of them movement-based multi-issue organizations. That is the future of the American progressive movement. Not the single-issue groups that continue to hold their narrow interests above those of the broader movement.

What’s frustrating about comments like this is the uncritical conflation of the “broader movement” and the Democratic party. What’s a “pet issue”? Well, it’s an issue taken up by people you think could spend their time better doing something else. Since Kos’ goal – certainly an urgent and worthy one – is to replace Republican elected officials with Democratic ones, he tends to snipe at progressives who focus on pretty much anything else – be it reducing poverty or expanding civil liberties – as a higher priority. And his hammering on the all-too true point that the Right in this country has demonstrated much stronger long-term strategy than the Left over the past few decades only makes it that much more disappointing each time he makes the short-sighted argument that progressive groups which too strongly criticize or withhold support from Democrats who don’t share their values are selfish for not subordinating their cause to the goal of winning the next election. That’s not how conservatives accomplished their takeover of many of the powerful institutions in this country.

What really gets me about this particular post, though, is the way it conflates Kos’ “every left-wing group in the country should work to elect anyone to Congress who will vote for Pelosi for Speaker” critique with a critique I agree with: the left hasn’t done a sufficient job of building lasting multi-issue coalitions, and progressive activists have too often failed to see and articulate the connectedness between their causes. For Kos, the latter critique must be the former, because the only legitimate form for multi-issue cooperation to take is the Democratic party or organizations or websites mainly devoted to electing Democrats. But that’s not the view of many of the most articulate exponents of the latter critique, including the “Death of Environmentalism” essay which he rightly highlights as a crucial document (here too, I agree). In fact, the very excerpt he quotes in his post is:

Our thesis is this: the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. When you look at the long string of global warming defeats under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement’s approach to problems and policies hasn’t worked particularly well. And yet there is nothing about the behavior of environmental groups, and nothing in our interviews with environmental leaders, that indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.

“What’s that,” you say, “it’s possible to have a long string of defeats under a Democratic President? (For a sobering account of just how poor a job NRDC and the Sierra Club did at cashing in on their work electing Bill Clinton, check out Randy Shaw’s Activist Handbook). So much for the idea that all progressive groups have to do to advance their causes is get Democrats elected.