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Should Democrats adopt a small-tent strategy?


When I heard that Ari Berman's book on the Democratic Party would come out quite awhile after the 2008 election, I felt bad for him: By that time, I figured, there wouldn't be particularly large intra-Democratic arguments. I was wrong. “Herding Donkeys” turns out to be incredibly well-timed, and I imagine you'll be hearing a lot more about it next month. You'll get a taste of Berman's argument -- which is, in short, to kick out the conservative Democrats -- in this New York Times op-ed:

Democrats would be in better shape, and would accomplish more, with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive caucus. It’s a sentiment that even Mr. Dean now echoes. “Having a big, open-tent Democratic Party is great, but not at the cost of getting nothing done,” he said. Since the passage of health care reform, few major bills have passed the Senate. Although the Democrats have a 59-vote majority, party leaders can barely find the votes for something as benign as extending unemployment benefits.

A smaller majority, minus the intraparty feuding, could benefit Democrats in two ways: first, it could enable them to devise cleaner pieces of legislation, without blatantly trading pork for votes as they did with the deals that helped sour the public on the health care bill. (As a corollary, the narrative of “Democratic infighting” would also diminish.)

Second, in the Senate, having a majority of 52 rather than 59 or 60 would force Democrats to confront the Republicans’ incessant misuse of the filibuster to require that any piece of legislation garner a minimum of 60 votes to become law. Since President Obama’s election, more than 420 bills have cleared the House but have sat dormant in the Senate. It’s easy to forget that George W. Bush passed his controversial 2003 tax cut legislation with only 50 votes, plus Vice President Dick Cheney’s. Eternal gridlock is not inevitable unless Democrats allow it to be.

This doesn't make much sense to me. Berman admits that a more ideologically cohesive caucus would mean fewer votes. But that would mean more "blatantly trading pork" -- and worse -- "for votes," not less. The reason you make deals for votes is that you don't have enough of them. The more votes you need, the more deals you have to make. So insofar as Berman's recommendations mean fewer votes, they mean more deals.

He then says that slimmer majorities will mean that Democrats finally confront the filibuster. But will it? There have been plenty of 51- or 52-vote majorities in recent years. None of them have ended, or even changed, the filibuster. And feelings on the filibuster have as much -- or more -- to do with reverence for the institution than ideology. Sens. Evan Bayh and Michael Bennet are both conservative Democrats who want to reform the filibuster. Sen. Chris Dodd is a liberal Democrat who wants to preserve it.

As for reconciliation, George W. Bush got the tax cuts done through reconciliation and the Democrats finished health-care reform through reconciliation, so there's no obvious evidence that the Democrats are less willing than the Republicans. They avoided doing health-care reform entirely through reconciliation, but that's because the rules of reconciliation would've meant not doing major parts of health-care reform, like the ban on preexisting conditions.

Moreover, majority rule doesn't mean you don't have to make compromises. Consider the House of Representatives, where Nancy Pelosi had to cut a deal with Bart Stupak and his friends in order to pass health-care reform, and with Collin Peterson and his friends to pass cap-and-trade. Turn Stupak and Peterson into Republicans rather than conservative Democrats and those deals either get much worse or those bills simply don't pass.

Berman ends by saying that a more ideologically cohesive caucus will make for a "more united and more productive" party. More united, sure. But more productive? Fewer votes means getting less done. And the proof is in the 111th Congress: Say what you will about the ugly deals and the missed opportunities, but no recent group of congressional Democrats has even come close to their productivity, and that's solely a function of no recent group of congressional Democrats being nearly as large as this one was. It's very difficult to do big things inside a small tent.

Photo credit: By Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  | October 26, 2010; 2:23 PM ET
Categories:  Democrats  
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Meanwhile, in the name of ideological purity, conservative Republicans are busy driving out the RINOs.

The Tea Party will greet both the DINOs and the RINOs with open arms, and the Democrats and Republicans will both get a lesson in being careful what they wish for.

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 26, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

sounds like the same bs the republican party has gone thru the last 10 years. Where some of these really stupid folks come from I don't know. Somehow compromise has become a dirty word, see Ms Applebaums column today and the nasty comments from both wings

Posted by: chet_brewer | October 26, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Shouldn't party's stand for something? What does the Democratic party stand for if it contains staunch abortion foes and staunch pro-choicers? Laissez faire free market advocates and those favoring strong business regulation? Those who believe in an originalist approach to the constitution and those who do not? If being a Democrat has no meaning with respect to political philosophy, then there is no reason to be a Democrat.

Posted by: lEG2 | October 26, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

its funny that when the Dems contemplate this strategy its "Should Dems employ small tent strategy" but when Republicans look for purity its "Tea Party lunatics drive out the sane Senators".

Its amazing what perspective can do.

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Posted by: dfhjadfjsdf | October 26, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

When you try to please everybody you always make most of them mad at you.

Pleasing everyone is an impossible task. The Democrats seem too dumb to realize that.

Throw out all your fringe nitpickers and try to please the majority for a change.

Republicans seem to be on to something.

Posted by: battleground51 | October 26, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Big tent is fine, but when individuals start dictating procedurals it's over.
The problem with Dems is not the big tent party, but the lack of discipline for the party. If Lieberman and Nelson (NB) want to caucus with the Dems and get the support of that, they damned well better support the party on procedural votes.
If they don't, what the hell are they doing in the party? Vote however you want, but procedural stuff needs to be party line or nothing will ever get done.

Posted by: rpixley220 | October 26, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Michael Bennet isn't exactly a "conservative Democrat." He's voted with the Administration on virtually all of it's priorities in addition to speaking up for Liberal priorities like the Public Option and the DREAM Act.

Posted by: ThePedro | October 26, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

The point you and Berman seem to miss here is there is no coherent or real "conservative" Democratic opposition to real health care reform, or marijuana legalisation, or whatever, but rather that of those who either profit from the current arrangement, or are "centrist" by habit and inclination, that seek always to take a view broadly in the middle of what they view as the political spectrum (i.e. Washington, not America, or their home state) or are simply more concerned about staying in power than using it to effect change. Obviously Democrats will struggle to elect liberals in Kentucky, assuming they want to. There's no need to talk of some "conservative purge" when getting rid of triangulating careerists will achieve the same desired result.

Of course, at the root of all this is an assumption that Obama secretly wants to lead a progressive party and will seek to achieve that end with what he is given, but that's for another day.

Posted by: dSquib | October 26, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

I think having a "small tent" actually is good politics for the Dems. though I do agree with Ezra that there's little evidence it will achieve what Berman thinks it will achieve. Having a "small tent" geared toward the progressives in the party, however, will make it easier for Democrats to distinguish their achievements, craft better legislation, and market their platform to the American public. As Dean used to say, "the way to beat them [Republicans] is not to be like them." There's nothing lamer than "Republican lite."

And what's with all the comments a la "how come 'small tent' Republicans are branded lunatics, but it's okay when Democrats ponder ideological purity?" Although I suppose one's being a "lunatic" is to some extent in the eyes of the beholder, any equivalence between progressive Dems. and the Tea Party right is a false equivalence. This isn't about policy differences or whether you believe in big government or small government, or who's a socialistical socialist and who's a fascistomongering fascist. It's whether you're running for public office and intimating that people should resort to "Second Amendment" remedies to confront alleged government tyranny (Angle) or secession from the union (Perry) or whether some Americans are "more real" than others (Palin). I consider these more than mere policy differences. Those are fringe beliefs by candidates considered mainstream. Elections and our three-party system are a check on "bad" policy decisions; what's the check on "resorting to Second Amendment remedies"? As they say, it's all in good fun until someone loses an eye ...

Posted by: pbasso_khan | October 26, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

The issue is that when the coalition becomes too broad, it stops being able to coherently stand for much of anything. Having 60 votes in the Senate isn't particularly useful if you regularly lose a dozen even on items that are supposed to be core Democratic priorities.

It's hard to find a compelling message to voters when you're unable to stand for much beyond not being as bad as the other guy. Hence, we end up with a focus on technocratic competence. That's important, but a vision and set of shared values are at least equally important.

Posted by: CaffinatedOne | October 26, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

There are advantages and disadvantages to both the big- and the little-tent theories of party control. Big-tenters can get a lot done if they're willing to compromise with one another. Little-tenters can make tough ideological stands.

Looking at Democrats' interest in creating new initiatives like health reform, it'd be tough for them to do it with a little tent.

On the other hand, Republicans' little tent strategy seems quite up to the task of restricting new spending and stoking their base.

Truth is, in a two party system, there isn't room for both sides to employ one philosophy or the other. They're bound to seek their comparative advantages.

I just wish parties mattered less, and individual members felt more free to vote their conscience, or their constituency, with a la carte coalitions for all legislation. Let power centers form on their own, don't let them get too big. That's the idea.

I don't really care if there are two parties or ten. I just hate to see the potential for cooptation when few groups control all the power, and can cajole votes for cash or influence.

At the center of the American ethos is a fear of the consolidation of power, be it corporate or government. Left and right both have their boogeymen in this regard. We ought to be vigilant of it in all its manifestations.

Posted by: itstrue | October 26, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Berman's right, being so close to 60 votes was a tantalizing prospect that corrupted the Dems' strategy. It stands to reason that with only 52 votes and a more homogeneous ideology, Dems will get more combative and less bipartisan. And that's what we need to get Sen. Udall's Constitutional Option enacted on the first day of the 2013 Congress to reform/remove the filibuster.

Posted by: michaelh81 | October 26, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

What legislation is missing from the actions of this congress that would have fixed the Democrats problems now and been possible with fewer votes? I don't see any way the filibuster could have been changed in 2009. Would just a bigger stimulus have made things all better now? I doubt it. You would have needed a bigger and somewhat different stimulus, including something like a federal takeover of the mortgage market and an instant federalizing of medicaid and I don't think we could have known that was needed. The Democrats problem is 1) the economy and 2) the Republicans can legislate as if their entire goal is to win the next election and aren't paying any price for it.

Posted by: windshouter | October 26, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

You can't bludgeon somebody with fog. Having a strong liberal Democratic party, labels be damned, is what people want at the policy level. But you can't SELL the policy if centrists you are trying to please are continually pissing in the punch bowl to look more reasonable and less offenisive. Nobody was crying out for a health care exchange that bent cost curves. People wanted Medicare for All. Make the SOBs who want to sit on the fence tip one way or get impaled by the damn thing. You can't get elected to Congress running as a weenie in either party. Allowing the kind of people who find Steny Hoyer and Blanche Lincoln dynamic paint the left as crazy is daft. Serving the pureed turnips of centrism with every meal turns off the people who want steak and potatoes. Centrism is pureed turnip. Just take it off the goddamn menu.

Posted by: jamusco | October 26, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Yes, procedural vote unity is important, but recently, a vote for cloture is identical to a vote for the bill.

I think your reconciliation comment is off base, Ezra. Didn't Republicans change the rules of reconciliation (replace the parliamentarian) in order to pass the Bush tax cuts?

Posted by: will12 | October 26, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Sad to see some commenters agreeing with Berman's thesis. His NYT op-ed is strange. To wit:

* "However, despite some notable successes . . . things have not gone according to plan." What plan? The reality is such that this sentence should read: "Despite not having 60 votes to break filibusters in the Senate, congressional Democrats -- liberals and conservatives alike -- were able to pass the most far-reaching legislative agenda (another word for "plan") since LBJ.

* "The party leaders did not give much thought to how a Democratic majority that included such conservative members could ever effectively govern." Wrong! Those party leaders knew that without a Democratic majority, which meant electing Democrats in red states and red districts, they could not govern AT ALL. As for "effective" governance, think of the historic legislative and administrative successes they have had. Plus two Supreme Court appointments.

* " . . . casting doubt on the long-term viability of a Democratic majority." Long-term political majorities are always in doubt. Ask Karl "Permanent Majority" Rove. Especially when the economy craters. Ask Herbert Hoover. Moreover, there wouldn't have even been a short-term majority had Democrats not won seats in Republican-leaning districts and states.

* "“I’d rather have a real Republican than a fake Democrat,” (Margret Johnson) said." Welcome to the Jim DeMint "Permanent Minority" school of politics.

* "A smaller majority, minus the intraparty feuding, could benefit Democrats in two ways: first, it could enable them to devise cleaner pieces of legislation . . . " So Berman could wipe his hands with the "clean" legislation? Because that's what it would be worth: paper toweling. Doesn't he understand in a parliamentary system governing majorities usually represent coalitions of parties, but in our two-party system coalitions are formed inside parties?

* "President Obama’s election has led to near-absolute polarization. If Democrats alter their political strategy accordingly, they’ll be more united and more productive." So what Berman wants is not near-absolute polarization. He wants absolute polarization. Why? Because he doesn't want to govern, however imperfectly, for the benefit of most Americans. He wants a street brawl with conservatives over ideology, a street brawl for the satisfaction of himself and his fellow ideologues. American citizens' welfare? He doesn't seem to care about that. He seems to care only about the moral superiority of his ideology and his ability to morally posture. More productive? He had 700 words to lay out how that would come about. But he did not do that. And that's because he can't.

Posted by: fredbrack | October 26, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

I want a system that works to solve our problems most effectively.

Sometimes our problems are best solved by something other than a centrist solution, which sometimes take the form of a lowest common denominator.

It's the engineering principle that something that tries to do everything does everything poorly. This includes monolithic power structures, however democratic.

The stimulus simultaneously took away needed revenue and didn't spend enough, all in the spirit of compromise.

Health care reform would have been much better had parties not jockeyed for it at all costs, or against it, the country's interests be damned.

Both examples are recent products of a system where each party positions itself to maximize its own advantage over the public's.

Those who have a vested interest in the status quo, no matter their party, will be poor at changing it, even when it's for the best. Fundamental change, then, is hard to achieve.

I've been toying with the idea of a political antitrust movement. I have no problem with parties per se, but I don't like them defining the issues of the day in terms of the interests they serve. Let ideology sort itself out, and don't let it be defined and limited in its scope by those who seek short-term gain.

Elected officials should serve in our best interest, to the satisfaction of the voting public first, and their party second.

I don't like things like first-past-the post elections, the electoral college, and parliamentary rules that encourage the system to remain as it is.

We're all fed up. "My Tea Party Revolt/Change We Can Believe In" would be to demand some basic revisions of the way our system operates.

But how does that happen when it's the system's beneficiaries in charge of making those sorts of changes? What can I do? Write my congressman? Post on WaPo? Wear a funny hat and read from the constitution? It's easy to understand how people are becoming more radical these days.

Posted by: itstrue | October 26, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

If the Dems are going to be a small-tent progressive party, then they must stop pretending to be moderates during the campaign season. Let them be honest socialists, since that is what they are. End the fakery.

Posted by: JBaustian | October 26, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Democrats don't really need a rigid litmus test. But some agreement on a few of the most important basic Democratic principles would be very helpful not only in achieving a majority, but in maintaining it more than two years.

People like Rep. Walt Minnick "D"-ID 1 do the party no good running for re-election against everything his party just did. If Minnick is a Democrat then I'm a flying Ponderosa Pine.

Those who argue for a majority above all else (see fredbrack above) don't seem to realize that they will have not have it for very long if they can't fulfill the basic promises of their party. Nor will they have the compromised jibberjabber legislation they cobble together that simply gets dismantled by the anti-government party after the following election.

Political parties don't have lefts, rights and middles; they have cores and peripheries. Abandon the core at your immediate peril, as you're about to see.

Priorities. And a little enforcement. That's all it'd take.

Posted by: pmcgann | October 26, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

For the record, Bart Stupak is either incredibly stupid or completely unpricipled. His compromise will lead to federally funded abortions. If he didn't know that, he is to dumb to come in out of the rain.

Posted by: buggerianpaisley1 | October 26, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

Is this a new idea for an one party ruler who had been continually blaming the obstruction of a minority party ("those bastardly republicans") who could not block any thing the super-majority did until Scott Brown showed up unexpectedly?
What could be blamed next?
Not enough money?

Posted by: sun127 | October 26, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

Is this a new idea for an one- party ruler who had been continually blaming the obstruction of a minority party ("those bastardly republicans") who could not block any thing the super-majority did until Scott Brown showed up unexpectedly?
What could be blamed next?
Not enough money?

Posted by: sun127 | October 26, 2010 8:59 PM | Report abuse

Fold the big tents where would all those who don't pay taxes and are the democratic base live? Where would the dead and illegals stay until Nov??

Posted by: mandinka2 | October 26, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

Which kind of conservative Democrats do they want to kick out, capitalists or religious ones?

I am morally very liberal (or at least anti-religious moralizing), but very much an entrepreneurial capitalist that somehow is considered a conservative...despite never having voted for a Republican. No party has ever felt right to me.

However, I fear if we had a 4 party system with social-econ going, lib/lib, lib/con, con/lib, con/con where each side could team up on certain issues I'd lose on both accounts and we'd end up with a socially conservative fiscally redistributive country that would be busy legislating the lyrics of rock music songs while centrally planning the economy.

Posted by: staticvars | October 26, 2010 10:35 PM | Report abuse

As a life long, moderate Democrat [Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy & Scoop Jackson wing], I suggest Mr. Berman take his idiocy and move to the Liberal Party. Perhaps his work should be retitled for those who, actually, attempt to practice what he preaches from "Herding Donkeys" to "Heard An Ass!"

The illiberal "liberal" wing of the Party is excellent at running their mouths and winning primaries. However, when it comes to winning elections and, actually, governing, that's another story. Without the Party's moderate and conservative Democrats, the Party would never win anything. But, that would be fine with the likes of Mr. Berman and the Illiberals [sounds like a 50's singing group on American Bandstand doesn't it. "Well, Dick,the lyrics weren't much but the beat was sort of nice. I'd give it a 50"] in the Party as long as they got some daily adulation from the intellectually moribund.

Unfortunately,the moderate and more conservative Democrats (which comprise about 70 to 75% of the Party) don't make enough idiotic statements for the press. So, the whacko wing gets the press coverage such as this article.

We, moderate to conservative Democrats, take what we do very seriously; ourselves -- not so much. The liberal wing of the Party is unable to govern because they're the reverse. They take themselves very seriouly; what they do not so much. The bad compromises the illiberal "liberals" have made over the past 10 years may end up costing the Party control of the House and the country will suffer.

As far as Mr. Berman, and Mr.Klein, who wrote this article, are concerned, they should, perhaps, take their insane propositions and follow the advice the Democratic candidate for govenor of Rhode Island gave Mr. Obama concerning his non-endorsement.

Posted by: JohninConnecticut | October 27, 2010 7:21 AM | Report abuse

Face the facts the party of "NO" will say no until they get in power and then they don't know what to say so they say nothing.

Posted by: SWAMPYPD | October 27, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

fyi itstrue:

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Elections wouldn't be aboutEvery vote would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

Now, policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. It does not abolish the Electoral College, which would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls.

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas (6), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), The District of Columbia (3), Maine (4), Michigan (17), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), New York (31), North Carolina (15), and Oregon (7), and both houses in California (55), Colorado (9), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), New Jersey (15), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), and Washington (11). The bill has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington. These seven states possess 76 electoral votes -- 28% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


Posted by: mvymvy | October 28, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

The Democrats are about to get hit hard in the elections

The way to come through from this is to STICK to their beliefs and move forward with or without right-wing support

If the right gets in their way, KEEP going forward and let people know who is blocking them

STOP trying to please the right

Posted by: Bious | October 28, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

By the time the 2008 primaries reached my state, John Edwards was history--rejected not by Republicans or independents, but by Democratic primary voters. If you really want an ideologically cohesive caucus, you need to select an ideology that Democratic voters will support, which means kicking out folks on the left like Dennis Kucinich as well as folks on the right like Heath Shuler.

Berman doesn't actually say he wants to get rid of people on the left, so perhaps he believes that we should kick out the Shulers but keep the Kuciniches. In that case Berman's position amounts to the familiar refrain that the party needs to move to the left. That's a defensible position, but if Berman wants to advocate for it he first needs to say that that is what is position is.

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | October 28, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

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