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Can Democrats govern?

It's worth taking a step back from health-care reform for a second. What Democrats are doing isn't just abandoning a particular policy issue. They're proving themselves unable to govern.

Democrats spent most of 2009 with 60 votes in the Senate and about 256 in the House. They had a popular new president who was following a disastrous Republican administration and a financial crisis. The opposition party was polling somewhere between foot fungus and spoiled meat. You don't get opportunities like this very often. The Senate majority, in fact, was larger than either party had enjoyed since the 1970s. And what have Democrats accomplished?

Well, not much. You can see a list here. A stimulus that was too small. Ted Kennedy's Serve America Act. Credit card regulations that were largely an acceleration of rules the Federal Reserve was going to impose anyway. I guess they almost passed a compromised health-care bill, but you don't go down in history for almosts.

If Democrats abandon health-care reform in the aftermath of Brown's victory, the lesson will be that they can't govern. No majority within the realm of reason will give them the votes to move their agenda swiftly and confidently. Even the prospect of the most significant legislative achievement in 40 years, an achievement that will save hundreds of thousands of lives, will not keep them from collapsing into chaos when they face adversity.

At that point, what's the pitch for voting for Democrats? That they agree with you? A plumber and I both agree that my toilet should work. But if he can't make it work, I'm not going to pay him any money or invite him into my home. Governance isn't just about ideology. It's also about competence and will. That's where Democrats are flagging.

You could argue that it's not fair to brand "Democrats" as at fault here. There's something to that. The leadership and the president would happily pass and sign legislation. But a party is as a party does. Democrats often run on the need to have enough votes to act. If they can't act even with those votes, then there's a real problem. Would Republicans be so terrorized if they were in a similar circumstance? The GOP forged ahead with its attempts to impeach Bill Clinton even after voters cut them down for it in the 1998 election. Those were some odd priorities, but at least the party was committed to the agenda it ran on. Democrats may not want to go quite that far in terms of party discipline, but they need to get a whole lot further than they are now.

Update Comments on this post are back up, I think. Sorry about that.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 21, 2010; 4:12 PM ET
 
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Next: The Senate bill is the most progressive base bill Democrats will get

Comments

I think it's completely fair to blame Democrats. The only pitch for voting for Democrats is that they won't actively destroy the world, they'll just passively let it burn to embers.

Posted by: dpurp | January 21, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Yes, they can govern. At least in terms of running cabinet agencies they are orders of magnitude better at running things. My experience is at the State level. When we had a GOP governor, secretaries and upper management was at best well-meaning but ineffective, and at worst, crony kleptocrats. Many decent managers were fired for purely political reasons. With a Dem governor, agencies are run by career professionals and things like outcome measures are taken very seriously. It really is night and day. I get the sense that the same applies in Washington, though I have no personal experience there.

But as for actually legislating and wielding political power to make structural changes and move an agenda forward, they obviously suck at the national level.

It's funny that the GOP, the only American party that knows how to actually wield such power, has no interest in running an effective government towards anything remotely like the common good.

Posted by: jeirvine | January 21, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Yes, the Democrats can govern. Whether or not they choose to is another story. The current strategy of coming up with leviathan bills that appear, or can be easily spun to appear, as if they are designed to remake the country from scratch has, thus far, not Bern successful.

At the very least, the Democrats have proven they are not up to the task of governing in their chosen, Big Idea manner. Medicare buy-in. shoulda done it from day one.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 21, 2010 9:32 PM | Report abuse

If by "govern" you mean wreck economies, impoverish populations, and embolden terrorists, all the while telling everyone that they're the cure for all that ails us, then yes they can govern.

Posted by: Cutaway | January 21, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

"It's funny that the GOP, the only American party that knows how to actually wield such power, has no interest in running an effective government towards anything remotely like the common good."

I think most conservatives would disagree with that statement--they believe Republicans, at the very least, are extremely interested in running government for the common good. That being, the government that governs least governs best. And many of us would disagree that the Republicans are competent about advancing their agenda. I don't think they are, in general, any better at wielding power than the Democrats. If they were, they wouldn't have lost in 2006 and 2008, or at least not to the degree they did.

Also, Ezra said: "Would Republicans be so terrorized if they were in a similar circumstance? The GOP forged ahead with its attempts to impeach Bill Clinton even after voters cut them down for it in the 1998 election. Those were some odd priorities, but at least the party was committed to the agenda it ran on."

But I would argue they weren't committed to the agenda they ran on, which was The Contract With America. Which said nothing about impeaching a popular president while abandoning the policy priorities they campaigned on. In their own way, I think the whole Ken Starr/Impeachment debacle was the Republicans misreading the public mood and responding by going crazy. It was their version of what the Democrats are doing now. But at least the far right fringe was happy with impeachment (except that it didn't get Clinton booted out), where as I don't think anyone on the left is happy with what the Democrats are doing now.

Finally, I apologize for typos in my first comment on this thread. It was from my iPhone. And I suffer from some sort of typing dyslexia. If I had a dime from every time I, a college graduate, used the word "one" when I meant to write "won", I'd have $500 dollars. And could pay for half-a-month's worth of health insurance.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 21, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

Democrats can't legislate, or are unwilling to keep their commitments to legislate. That's the lesson of today. Right now they are a bunch of cringing cowards who are more afraid of teabaggers than their own base. They should fear their base a lot more as fall elections get closer.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | January 21, 2010 10:35 PM | Report abuse

This is dangerous, Ezra: "At that point, what's the pitch for voting for Democrats? That they agree with you? A plumber and I both agree that my toilet should work. But if he can't make it work, I'm not going to pay him any money or invite him into my home."

That attitude makes liberals vote Green, or not vote. And that makes Republicans smile.

Posted by: JohanHelge | January 21, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, are you saying that the Senate bill would "save hundreds of thousands of lives"? If that's true (what's the time horizon?), then people DON'T KNOW this. On Democratic Underground, many think that people will just be forced to buy insurance they can’t afford to use, because of copays and deductibles.

Please explain these things.

Posted by: JohanHelge | January 21, 2010 11:30 PM | Report abuse

What frustrates me is Republicans aren't even being made to take tough votes. The Franken right-to-rape-and-hide-it Amendment is the only one I can think of.
It is because the Lieberdems don't want to take tough votes, and the Senate Majority Leader is from a Red State where a gotcha vote hurts him as well. So not only is there is no movement on any legislation that liberals want, we don't even have material for good commercials to damage Republicans enough to open up some breathing space and get some of them coming across the aisle to change the dynamic. Look at the B.S. with Demint holding up the confirmation of that TSA guy that dropped out. Why wasn't the Senate rushing back to vote on his confirmation the day after Christmas, or even the next damn week and putting the onus on DeMint to defend his position and more importantly, Senators like Snowe and Collins whether they were going to help Demint or help National Security?
Until we have leaders at the least that are willing to buck the will of Nelson and Lincoln and Bayh (and Reid) to hide out and not do anything to get the obstruction on the record where it will embarrass them, at the very least, we are deadlocked. That is never going to help the majority.

Posted by: flounder2 | January 22, 2010 12:24 AM | Report abuse

I feel your despair, brother Klein. But remember, it's always going to be harder to advance an agenda that is by definition at the expense of money & power, even if the concessions we are ferociously demanding are really quite feeble and non-threatening. That whole movie thing with the teddy bears and the tree trunks doesn't work. I bet if the Dems' goals were to cut taxes, appoint corporate cronies, & start a war, they'd have had a super-successful year, too. Oh hey, they did help the banks! Highly effective.

And while you're admiring Republican discipline & efficacy, remember-- it's not like they succeeded in abolishing Social Security or, as you say, getting rid of Clinton. They succeeded in doing things that were (strange but true) relatively easy.

Posted by: JaneG | January 22, 2010 12:40 AM | Report abuse

"They're proving themselves unable to govern."

Ding ding ding! And yes, having the Democratic Party agree with me in principle is not enough. The Democrats are useless to me if they can't pass legislation that I need them to pass. And I don't think the problem is competence as much as it is will. Democrats jumped at the chance to abandon my healthcare issue immediately after the Massachusetts election. They seemed utterly eager--excited even--to proclaim their helplessness. Which, honestly, really pissed me off.

At this point, I have no solution to offer for this persistent problem. And that's also demoralizing.

Posted by: slag | January 22, 2010 1:55 AM | Report abuse

I think someone simply needs to write a column like this more along the lines of "Grow some balls and push the bill forward!" and by the way lets have some recess appointments.

If one team has ceded the playing field in terms of ideas and resorted to name calling and obstructionism do what needs to be done to fulfill your promises.

I am actually of the hope that Brown would like to be re-elected and will therefore work in the Senate to pass good legislation rather than engage in obstructionism.

Posted by: hector23 | January 22, 2010 1:55 AM | Report abuse

Let's put it this way -- the only elections worth voting in or putting money into in the next few years will be Democratic primaries. Fighting the Reps is a pointless task when it's our own Senators & Reps killing us.

Posted by: NS12345 | January 22, 2010 4:21 AM | Report abuse

"That attitude makes liberals vote Green, or not vote. And that makes Republicans smile."

See I think this reflects a really widespread and maddening attitude among DC Dems (and I'm not saying you are one -- it's just an attitude I've often heard).

It's worth remembering there is nothing inherently "better" or "worse" about Democrats winning. We can all pat ourselves on the back, but ultimately what matters is the POLICY that they enact. The party infrastructure spends so much time patting itself on the back for winning elections that it consistently forgets that.

Of course this is different on the presidential level where the actual guy sitting in the Oval Office is important. But as we've seen, Congress can grind to the halt if the minority party wants it enough. If that's the case, it doesn't particularly matter if any particular seat is filled with a D or R -- unless they actually DO something with that seat.

Posted by: NS12345 | January 22, 2010 4:26 AM | Report abuse

So what's wrong with voting green? The only reason a lot of people have placed their climate and ecology anxieties on hold has been to join the swell that supplied a Democrat majority.

If they can't use it to pass legislation, if they show their inability to govern at the national level, then sustainability candidates are the only answer, regardless of where they come from.

The planet's comfort zone for human civilization is running out, quickly. This forms its own messaging, no packaging required. This issue won't go away, it will rise in damage and immediacy month by month, unremittingly, right up to endgame.

What is needed are people who can get things done. It won't be the Republicans. It was always questionable if the Democrats were able to step into this requirement.

A little more disgusting loss of nerve like this and they're finished with progressive dialog, because the planet's fate itself will soon take over the entire conversation.

Oddly, even as the Dems go down, Obama may rise, on this one front, the most important of all.

Posted by: rosshunter | January 22, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I think this post reflects the despair you're feeling at the moment, Ezra.

One could easily defend a different proposition: that the system is broken so that it is well-nigh impossible to pass ambitious legislation. Even with 60 votes, the bill has foundered in the face of (a) the absolute unwillingness of the Republican Party to provide a single vote in support of health care reform, combined with (b) Democrats --particularly in the Senate -- who are legitimately worried about their prospects for re-election.

The system seems unable to respond no matter how important the issue is. That's a much more worrisome problem than the inability of one political party to get its agenda through.

Posted by: ACanuck | January 22, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

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