Filibuster Strategy Could Cost Democrats Again in 2004

Posted October 27, 2003 at 4:51pm

As a very young politician, Teddy Roosevelt experienced the frustrations inherent in leading a legislative minority — the New York state Assembly. Ten years after his stint in the Legislature, he wrote, “People cannot have free institutions if they lack the wisdom, self-command and common sense to make use of them; and the people who condone and approve filibustering show that they lack all these qualities, and to that extent have forfeited their claim to be considered capable of governing themselves.” [IMGCAP(1)]

As the first session of the 108th Congress lumbers toward adjournment and Senate Democrats threaten more filibusters of key Republican legislative initiatives, polls show most Americans would probably agree with Roosevelt. The question is whether Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) will shift to Roosevelt’s view or stick with the strategy that defeated crucial class action reform legislation last week despite a bipartisan 59-vote majority in favor of ending debate — one vote short of ending the filibuster.

Knowing the Democrats’ minority status means their issue agenda won’t pass, Daschle has a crucial political choice to make in the next few days. He can embrace a “better idea” strategy by offering positive legislative alternatives. In a best-case scenario, some of those proposals could be absorbed, in part, into final Republican legislation; worst case, they would give Democrats a platform of ideas to take to the public in 2004.

Or Daschle can go to the mattresses and decide to continue his risky filibuster strategy blocking Republican efforts to pass crucial legislative initiatives still awaiting action — a Medicare prescription drug bill, the energy bill, a string of appropriations bills, important judicial appointments, and the D.C. school choice legislation.

That would make the Democrat base happy as well as his party’s liberal lions in the Senate who want Republicans stopped by any means necessary, including using the filibuster. With the word “progress” missing from their vocabulary, most would rather see nothing passed than a Republican bill.

The problem is that a filibuster strategy is in direct conflict with what the American people have said they clearly want — action. That was the lesson Democrats should have learned from the last Congressional election, and the recent California recall only reinforced findings that voters want solutions to their problems, not excuses and certainly not partisan bickering.

A few centrist Democrats in the Senate do seem to understand that voter patience is wearing thin. They saw the result of this negative strategy in the 2002 election. Then, the Democratic leaders proposed an $800 billion prescription drug package but were unable to round up votes for passage despite their majority status. When their own $800 billion plan failed, however, they refused to support the Republicans’ smaller $400 billion plan. They didn’t understand that in the minds of the majority of voters, something is better than nothing. And, more importantly, to most Americans $400 billion doesn’t sound like nothing.

Democrats totally misread voters who viewed the whole episode as a partisan food fight in which Democrats chose to hold up the legislation for what they thought would be partisan advantage rather than passing a less expensive package, providing some relief to seniors and then taking the debate to the appropriate forum — the voting booth. That decision and their delaying tactics stalling the Homeland Security Department cost the Democrats the Senate and victories for then-Sen. Max Cleland (Ga.) and Senate candidate Walter Mondale (Minn.).

Democrats fear that major Republican accomplishments on key issues will make it more difficult for them to regain the majority in either body or win the presidential race. They’re right. But their filibuster strategy could cost them even more.

I suspect the Democratic strategy sessions are focusing on some hard questions: “How far can we push our use of the filibuster to minimize as much as possible what the Senate Republicans can accomplish, without receiving blame for being obstructionist? Can we filibuster the prescription drug bill? Can we continue to filibuster women and minority judicial appointments without a backlash or appearing to be obstructionist? Can we filibuster the D.C. school choice bill when the Democratic mayor of Washington is pleading for passage?”

The answer to all these questions: not without paying a potentially heavy political price.

In a recent New Models survey (Sept. 30-Oct. 1 of 1,000 registered voters), I tested voter reaction to the filibuster strategy.

“Senate Democrats have threatened to filibuster a number of proposals that Senate Republicans and the president have offered. Do you think that they oppose Republican proposals because Democrats deliberately block Republican proposals for partisan reasons or because the Democrats truly have better solutions of their own to bring to the table?”

Fifty percent of Americans said they believed Democrats block Republican proposals for partisan reasons, while only 32 percent said the Democrats were motivated by their better solutions. Among independent voters, the most important swing voter group, the margin was even wider at 52 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Even the Democrats’ own data reinforces this finding. In the 2002 post-election survey done by the Democracy Corps (Carville, Shrum and Greenberg), voters, by a margin of 45 percent to 20 percent, believed Republicans had clearer ideas of what they wanted to do.

Very little has changed since the 2002 Congressional election. Voters still perceive Democrats as offering few ideas while Democratic presidential candidates seem to have only one mantra — attack Bush. Ideas and solutions seem to have taken a back seat to bitter partisanship which has become a pervasive Democrat doctrine. The filibuster is just the latest incantation.

Daschle would be wise to listen to old Roosevelt and change course or risk another disastrous election in 2004.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.