There is a lot of uproar about the recent deficit dispute. Republicans say, as if they were holding hands around a camp fire, that we are mortgaging our children’s future and that government spending is socialist. The Democratic chorus is much less harmonious. Some want further stimulus to restart the stalling economy. Others are starting to raise concerns about the ever growing deficit. Matt Bai, of the New York Times, wrote an article on this Democratic disunity. He likens the divide among Democrats to the 89th Congress under the presidential leadership of LBJ. His analogy isn’t far off. In many ways the Democratic party is very similar to its 1965 predecessors. Democrats are internally divided on several issues, not the least of which is economics. However, where the analogy abandons Bai is Congress’s institutional environment. The contemporary legislative process would be virtually unrecognizable to the members of the 89th Congress. That being said, the manner in which the current majority governs will require a different strategy.
As Bai points out, the Democratic majority is not making things easy for Obama. They have a massive majority but it’s suspect to cleavages. We saw this kind of split on the Healthcare vote. An 81 seat majority squeezed out a 5-vote victory on the ACA bill. While the healthcare bill is unique in a lot of ways, we’ll likely see this kind of division on several of Obama’s initiatives. Bai states:
“A minority of Congressional Democrats are already objecting to proposals supported by most of the party for billions more dollars in deficit spending this year on unemployment benefits and state aid, as a way of trying to avert a double-dip recession. But the bigger argument is over how quickly and aggressively Washington should act in the next few years to rein in government debt, which by 2020, the Congressional Budget Office tells us, could reach a staggering 90 percent of the gross domestic product.”
The simple fact is that the Democrats sacrificed a lot of potential unity in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Instead of recruiting like-minded liberal Democrats, Pelosi & Co. targeted more conservative candidates to capture and extend their reach into the South and other conservative areas. Sacrificing ideological cohesion for a congressional majority is not all bad; however, you do have to live with the consequences.
As this split emerges, the leadership will have a choice. Either form a bipartisan coalition or capitulate to deficit Democrats. Bai suggests that appealing to a bipartisan coalition in the manner of Clinton is Obama’s best bet. There are a few problems with this. One, Obama has a majority (a big one), not a minority. Clinton forged most bipartisan coalitions because he had to. The Republicans controlled Congress. With a majority, we didn’t see Clinton reached across the aisle as often. We also didn’t see him get much done either. In the remaining six years Clinton accomplished plenty through bipartisan means. But again, Obama is stuck in the predicament of Clinton’s first two years, not the last six.
In many ways, the 89th Congress was designed better for this type of situation. Committee chairs (most of them conservative Southerners) would form coalitions with whichever group agreed with them most; whether that was liberal Democrats or Republicans. The problem is that the contemporary Congress is designed differently. Political parties run the show in Congress now, not committee chairs. What this means is that Congressional Democrats are going to have to suck it up and deal with their disagreements. They may try to reach out to Republicans but they won’t find many willing participants. With incivility and polarization rampant throughout the political system, bipartisanship in Congress is simply not feasible. Legislative procedure and threats of socialist takeover will prevent bipartisanship from becoming the norm for the moment. If Republicans take back the House and Senate, that might be a different story. Until then, Democrats will have to reach out to those on their side of the aisle.