Who Among Democrats Can End the War of the Roses?

Posted January 8, 2008 at 3:32pm

The Democratic presidential candidates have been debating who would be the real agent of change, even as they and many observers have been engaged in an intense debate about what strategy can work to make for real policy change in Washington, D.C. This is not just a question of outsiders and insiders, but of confrontation vs. compromise, of dividing vs. uniting. A leading voice on the confrontation/dividing side has been New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has been particularly vociferous in attacking Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and his health plan on that front; former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has been the Krugmanesque candidate, proclaiming his zeal for combat and his disdain for niceness.

[IMGCAP(1)]If Democrats have a near-perfect election, they will end up with all the reins of power in the first two branches of government in Washington. The Democratic president will have a Senate with 55 or 56 Democrats, and a House with perhaps as many as 240 or 245 Democrats, a margin of maybe 25, up from its current 15. Those are healthy numbers, but put them in context: When Bill Clinton came into the White House in 1993, he had 57 Democrats in the Senate and 258 in the House. And keep further in mind that he had a very rough two years — zero Republican votes for his budget plan, which took eight torturous months to enact (by one-vote margins in both chambers), headaches on his signature crime bill, setbacks and then defeat on his health care plan. And that was in a Washington where the minority Republicans included a sizable component of moderate centrists, while the next Congress will have far fewer such natural allies.

Is this a lineup where a brute force approach to policymaking, Krugman/Edwards style, could work? Of course not. Even if there is a clear public message for change, every bit of experience we have had with politics and policymaking in modern American history says that no sweeping policy changes will work without either overwhelming numbers for a party in Congress, a la 1933 and 1965, or bipartisan compromise. Even if Democrats got to 60 in the Senate, the fact is that the 60 would include Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Ben Nelson (Neb.). Does anybody really think that there would be 60 votes to override a filibuster and enact a revolutionary health care plan like Edwards’, much less a single payer system? Or a radical transformation of the tax code?

So the choice confronting voters is: Which presidential candidates realistically could maneuver in this environment to gain the votes for serious change in policy in health, education, energy, the environment, fiscal policy and budget priorities? There are clues in their backgrounds and performance. What we know of Obama in the Senate (and in the Illinois state Senate) is that he is comfortable working across party lines, can find partners from unlikely sources (e.g., Sen. Tom Coburn [R-Okla.] on the bill to open up government contracts and programs to Internet scrutiny), and can help achieve surprisingly effective government reforms. The ethics and lobbying bill, initially viewed with a cynical eye by the reform community, ended up being a tough and meaningful reform, in no small part because of Obama’s role. As I watched him up close in this fight, I was impressed with his ability to compromise when necessary and draw lines when important. It wasn’t an unmitigated success — Obama’s excellent plan to create an independent Office of Public Integrity went down by a large margin — but it was still a big plus.

What we know of Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the Senate is that she had a near-perfect first term, staying out of the limelight and working incredibly hard to learn the Senate’s rules and norms, building relationships with her colleagues across the board, diving into details in committee and then leveraging her assets, including her celebrity and popularity, to build alliances with a wide range of partners, including the likes of Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on selected issues. She could be a tough partisan at times, but worked across the aisle with ease and charm when it was possible and desirable. That pattern continued into her second term. The Clinton health care plan, which she quarterbacked in the early 1990s, went down in flames, to be sure, and it reflected a naive and misguided approach to policymaking and politics. But it was not, as conventional wisdom suggests, pushed entirely in a partisan, take-no-prisoners fashion. Mrs. Clinton early on met with a group of Republican House conservatives, led by John Kasich, and charmed them, and tried to find GOP allies in the Senate, like the late Sen. John Chafee (R.I.). It didn’t work.

Edwards’ Senate record is thinner, because he was there for only one term and was basically running for president by his second year. His colleagues liked him and saw him as a major talent. He was effective when he could play a role akin to his successful career as a trial lawyer — for example, during the Clinton impeachment trial, or in defending the constitutionality of campaign reform on the Senate floor during debate on McCain-Feingold — but there are few traces of policy success, including finding unlikely allies or partners, much less of using a take-no-prisoners approach to reform and having it succeed.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) has been a popular and successful governor of a small state, able to win over the Legislature and sometimes bull over the Legislature to achieve reformist and sometimes centrist policy goals. But this is a small state where a dynamic governor can make things happen in a fashion that does not work in Washington (see, for example, Jimmy Carter). However, unlike Carter, or Bill Clinton for that matter, Richardson is very deeply schooled in the ways of Congress, having served as a popular and respected member of the House for more than a decade.

The bitter partisan and ideological wars, akin to a War of the Roses, that have gripped our politics in Washington for the past two decades are not going away overnight, even though the huge turnout in Iowa and the results in New Hampshire reflect a growing public unease with them. The question confronting voters now is whether anyone can use the levers available to a president to simultaneously transcend the differences and transform our politics. At this point, voters understandably seem to be opting for someone who has not been immersed in the War of the Roses throughout the era — and who understands that transformation and transcendence can’t be accomplished with fiery rhetoric combined with grenades tossed into the Capitol or onto K Street.

•••

Every Congress maven had to react with regret and sadness at the news that Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) would be retiring from Congress because of cancer. The regrets are both professional and personal. Lantos is one of a kind — in his personal style, his life story and his knowledge and passion on important issues. He has been a superb chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He also is a gentleman, one of the few members of Congress to whom one would apply the term “courtly.” He has a wonderful family. I will miss him in Congress, and wish him Godspeed in his personal health challenge ahead.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.