Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Dems--Not Like the GOP in 1993

Democrats seem to be pushing everywhere--on the possible nuclear option in the Senate, on John Bolton's nomination to the UN, really on Tom DeLay, on Social Security. In fact there has been so much pressure from the Democratic party on the GOP it is like the GOP is reliving how the Democrats felt in 1993 and 1994. Perhaps that is why the Democrats may be feeling their oats a little.

Certainly, the GOP has its share of problems, ones that need to be addressed. But being like the Democrats in 1993-1994 is not one of them. But let us take a look at some similarities and the differences.

First, there is the Big Issue. In 1993 and 1994 it was health care and the Clinton healthcare plan was in development. This year it is President Bush's plan to revamp social security. One could argue in 1993 that the crisis in health care was real or not. Certainly costs were skyrocketing then and it was a problem for many Americans. Today, even Democrats agree that Social Security as we know it now is in jeopardy, the argument today is about when it will fail, not if.

But the similarity on the big issue ends there. In 1993 the Democrats were trying to put together a plan. They had a big idea, but no specifics. By the time a plan was put together, the GOP and its allies had effectively killed it. With Social Security, the Bush Administration has a plan, with details, that is being debated. While the Bush plan is not doing well in the hinterlands, there is a plan--something Clinton never really had.

Another similarity is that there are questions about ethics. Certainly Tom DeLay is guilty of a little bad judgment in his continuing relationship with Jack Abramhoff--but at this stage bad judgment is all there is. I have called for DeLay to step down from his leadership post, but I am not suggesting he resign from Congress. Of course, from what I know, what DeLay did was not improper--it just seems that way. In 1993, the Democrats and more than a few GOP Congressmen, were facing a real scandal--the House Bank check kiting scandal. Members of Congress were floating checks from accounts that had no money--and getting away with it for years. Such a practice among normal Americans would have resulted in civil charges at least if not criminal charges.

But here is the difference between check kiting and the charges made by Democrats against DeLay. Check kiting is illegal--bad judgment is not. There were far more Democratic Congressmen abusing the House Bank's leniency than GOP (not that the GOP was without sin), but the GOP was able to make a proper issue of it, by including in the Contract with America a provision called the Congressional Accountibility Act, which said that Congress is not above the law. Right now the Democrats can attack DeLay, but not to viciously or else they too will be caught in the web because DeLay's "transgressions" are committed by Congressmen every day.

Another similarity--it looks like power has gone to the collective head of the party in power. For 40 years, the Democrats ruled the House and they thought themselves invincible. They operated with impunity and abused their majority status on a regular basis. Today, the GOP is doing the same, only the partisanship, on both sides, has gotten worse. The partisan wrangling over the composition and rules of the Ethics Committee is inexcusable. The choking off of oppostion rhetoric by the GOP rules--while mimicing the Democrats while they were in power--needs to stop if the GOP is to be able to claim the moral high ground.

True, the minority party, particularly in the House, only has the power of speech to make its case. The House is set up as a majoritarian institution. The party in power makes the rules and rules teh roost. So the minority party has to take other tactics to make its case, either through the media directly to the American people, by throwing bombs in the House (a la Newt Gingrich in the early 1990's) or by working with the majority party and appearing to abandon your party and principles.

But the difference beteween the Democrats in 2005 and the GOP in 1994 is profoundly more fundamental that issues. The key difference is that in 1993 and 1994, the GOP had alternatives--the Contract with America. Realizing, after decades of getting spanked at the polls for Congress, the need for alternative stances on issues or the presentation of new issues, the GOP set out to propose different policy ideas. While they hoped the initiatives would resonate with the population, they couldn't be sure. But the one thing the GOP was sure of was they could not longer be the anti-party. They could no longer respond to Democratic iniatives and say, "We oppose that." The GOP learned to say, "We oppose the Democratic proposal--here is how we would do it. This is our idea."

The Democrats are not doing that in 2005.

Here are some top issues of the day:
  • Social Security reform--no coherent Democratic proposal on this issue.
  • The Economy--no ideas here (but to be honest I am not sure anyone has an idea)
  • National Defense--the only position is that we need one but no concrete ideas for doing it differently.
The Democrats are basing their opposition on the strategy of opposing the GOP. While that is necessary for their survival among their base, it will not win them any points among moderates and independents. The Demoratic strategy of being Anti-Bush and Anti-GOP failed them in 2004. The American voter is smart enough to realize when only one party has an idea or a proposal. Thus, the voter is more likely to vote FOR someone or a party than to vote AGAINST someone. If they are going in to vote AGAINST someone, they are actually less likely to vote.

If the Democrats are going to win in 2006, they will need to show two things. First, they need to have concrete proposals that the voters can evaluate. Without an alternative agenda, opposing the only policy proposal gains no ground--only keeps you from losing ground. Second, Democrats will need to convince Americans that their ideas are better.

The second item is always present in elections. But right now, the only party with ideas is the GOP and as long as they control the arena of ideas, they will win, even if their ideas suck.

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