You Maintain Power By Using It

Alex Pareene, in a very good column about using and losing power, misses something important. Before we get to that, Pareene (boldface mine):

When Americans overwhelmingly voted to give Congress to the Democratic Party in 2006, party leaders had a reasonably ambitious agenda. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that the 110th Congress would be “the most honest and open Congress in history” and announced a “100-Hour Plan” to pass a slate of bills before the president even had a chance to deliver his State of the Union address.

The biggest enduring legacy of the plan would be raising the federal minimum wage to its current level, $7.25 per hour. But bills requiring Medicare to negotiate drug prices and cutting interest rates on student loans died in the Senate, even though Democrats controlled it, too. No matter: Democrats acted like they had all the time in the world to achieve their bolder goals, if they only waited out the lame-duck George W. Bush administration. After all, the theory went, demographics meant they were on the way to a permanent majority.

That majority would be over and done with in four years, halfway through the first term of a Democratic president elected with the largest share of the popular vote in a generation. The window closed. Republicans became an older, whiter and somehow much angrier coalition, and they used the serendipity of taking power in a census year to rig legislative maps wherever they could, to stay in power by any means necessary. Action and (sometimes brutal and rapid) reaction is the story of our era.

With Democrats about to control the House of Representatives again, I have been thinking about that last majority: what it achieved, what it was too cautious to attempt and what that caution actually bought. Because we may be asking the same questions about the next Democratic majority sooner than we think. The lesson of the careful restraint that Democrats showed the last time they controlled either chamber of Congress — and of the Republican ferocity since then — is simple: Your job is not to win power and then maintain it. Your job is to win power and then use it, with the knowledge that you won’t have it forever or even, most likely, for very long at all.

Everything Democrats pushed through between 2007 and 2011 was rendered less effective by their cautious impulses. This is not to say that better results would have been achievable if President Barack Obama or Democratic leaders had simply wanted them more or “pushed harder”; the limited political imaginations of centrist and moderate lawmakers, and of the party strategists looking forward to the next election, were to blame. Determined to slow things down to protect their majority, Democrats ended up losing that majority without addressing some of the most pressing problems the nation faced…

Here’s what Democrats didn’t even send to Obama’s desk: bills to reduce carbon emissions, or make voting easy and universal and secure, or grow union membership and support workers looking to organize. Obviously, there’s more they didn’t get to, but carbon emissions and union support were on the agenda until they were abandoned by skittish Democrats, and voting reform should’ve been part of every Democrat’s Day One platform since Nov. 8, 2000. We’ll face the consequences of their caution for years to come

But it was just backlash, period, to this new coalition, led by a black president, using its power in any way. The backlash would’ve raged across the country if the stimulus had been half the size and if Obamacare had no individual mandate. The political result would’ve been the same with a larger stimulus, a public option and a carbon tax, too, except that after the 2010 bloodbath, we’d have had Republicans in control of Congress and … a stronger economy, a public option and a carbon tax.

While Pareene is right, one thing Democrats need to do is to plan to make structural changes that make losing power harder, and make it harder for Republicans to change things once Republicans regain power, such as:

  1. Packing the federal courts (not just the Supreme Court). We have witnessed much of Il Trumpe’s agenda be stimied, so far anyway, by federal judges. Shifting the balance to Democratic* judges matters.
  2. Statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico. For D.C., it’s an absolute no-brainer: multiple referenda have overwhelmingly supported statehood, and there’s legislation in the can, ready to go. Puerto Rico is a little more complicated, as during the last referendum, independence supporters boycotted, but, still, those who wanted to remain U.S. citizens strongly supported statehood. This gets Democrats four Senate seats and seven House seats. The U.S. is in a very different place with four more Democratic senate seats.
  3. Union card check and other union-strengthening policies. It’s simple: white people who are in unions vote Democratic (yes, #NotAllUnions, especially internal security and some of the building trade unions on the East Coast). But overall, this is good policy and good politics. Republicans understand this, which is why they try to crush unions every chance they get.
  4. Campaign finance reform. This weakens the power of wealthy people relative to small donors and volunteers. Serious efforts in this area need to happen.
  5. Voting rights reform. We need to make it easier to vote and to spread the franchise (e.g., the reenfranchisement of former felons in Florida). Thanks to our criminal justice policies from 1980 on, multiple cohorts of black men are unable to vote. Restore their votes. We also need to make it easier, especially for younger, more mobile voters to participate. That includes both voting and registration, which is a mess.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. Democrats, as Pareene notes, need to recognize they will lose power at some point, but they also need to make that harder, and easier to reverse when they do lose power. Enough of the Jed Bartlett-West Wing mentality. Deal with the world as it is.

*Let’s just dispense with the silliness that judges are ‘calling balls and strikes.’ They have morphed into what the nineteenth century Senate used to be: a de facto legislative body (with some weird constraints) that is elected by other parts of government.

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