Archive for Sunday, June 25, 2006

Government structure not Americans’ top concern

June 25, 2006


This month the Democrats began their offensive to take back control of the Congress. They've spent months recruiting candidates, they're raising money, and they're raising hopes. Now they have finally rolled out their agenda for power.

They call it "Take Back America," and the three implicit words they omit in their manifestoes are "from the Republicans." In fact, what they have taken from the Republicans is the notion that the way to win back power is to set out a comprehensive statement of their vision for power. Think of this as Contract With America 2.0.

But if you examine what they propose, you may find that it is a document very different from the one Newt Gingrich and his Republican rebels promulgated a dozen years ago. The differences tell us a lot about why today's Democrats seem so dispirited, but they tell us more about why today's Republicans seem even more so.

The Democrats want to enact the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission in their first week. They'd raise the minimum wage that first week, too. Then they'd get to work on a health care plan, with an initial focus on prescription coverage. They'd cut the interest rate on student loans in half. They'd work on energy independence, beginning by rolling back tax preferences for oil companies. Not so much has happened in one week in January since the Iran hostages were freed and Ronald Reagan was inaugurated a quarter-century ago.

Even so, the proposals are all pretty much standard 21st-century Democratic boilerplate, with the exception of the remarkable pledge that the Democrats would conduct a pay-as-you-go Congress. They pledge, in the words of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, "no new deficit spending." Don't skim that phrase quickly; my bet is that the word "new" means a lot.

Now let's look at the Contract With America, unveiled in September 1994 with a signing ceremony that made it seem as if the GOP House members and candidates were members of some latter-day Continental Congress.

The Gingrich Republicans vowed on the first day of Congress to overhaul the way the House had done business for four decades. The elements included making all laws apply to Congress as well as to the rest of the country, cutting the number of committees and their staffs, banning proxy votes in committees, requiring a three-fifths majority vote to increase taxes and limiting the terms of committee chairs.

Then the Republicans set out 10 legislative goals in areas such as budget and taxes, crime, welfare, child-support enforcement and job creation. "Respecting the judgment of our fellow citizens as we seek their mandate for reform," the contract said, sounding a bit like the script for the Broadway musical "1776," "we hereby pledge our names to this Contract With America."

The contract was a bald publicity stunt conducted by desperate men and women who portrayed themselves as citizen politicians at a time of enormous suspicion and impatience with traditional politicians. One candidate that year produced a bumper sticker that proclaimed: "Not the incumbent."

Baldly desperate as it was, it worked. In the midterm elections six weeks after the contract was launched, the Republicans took control of the Congress for the first time since the Eisenhower years and have retained control ever since. Their contract was a manifesto that was aimed as much at the structure of the Congress as it was at the policies of the Democrats, which, under President Bill Clinton, were inching rightward anyway, especially after the humiliating defeat he and his wife suffered with the collapse of their plan to overhaul the healthcare system.

The Democrats are claiming that they want to change the way Congress works, and Ms. Pelosi spoke derisively this month of the "corrupt, closed" Congress that the Republicans have created "an auction house where legislation goes to the highest bidder."

The Democrats will get some traction out of that tack, to be sure. The Jack Abramoff scandal (and the Iraq war) will help the Democrats transform their political drive into a moral crusade.

But the lures of lobby money are not exactly unknown in the Democratic cloakroom - and haven't been for two decades. The Gingrich movement wasn't the only revolution on Capitol Hill in the last generation. The other one was the Democratic determination to make the money game a bipartisan game, and not to focus merely on gadflies and millionaires with a liberal bent, but to mine the big corporations as well. Look at the contribution reports for 2006, and you will see that major American companies, hedging their political bets, are being wooed and won by the Democrats.

The difference between 1994 and 2006 isn't that there is a group of outsiders trying to claw their way to the inside after a frustrating period out of power. That happens all the time. The difference is that the Republicans in 1994 proposed not only changing the players on Capitol Hill, but also changing the rules. That's why they propelled their way into power.

The Democrats haven't done that in as dramatic a fashion in 2006. Perhaps it is because so many of them still see the Congress in the way the Democrats did in the happy years in which they controlled both chambers and when every other lawmaker, or so it seemed, called himself "Mr. Chairman."

It is still possible that the Democrats will take control of one or both houses in this year's midterm congressional elections. The frustrating experience of American troops in Iraq is a huge drag on Republican prospects - one, pointedly, that undermines the moral authority the Bush administration possessed when it undertook the war on terrorism. And just as national security problems dog the Republicans, so do financial security questions; the unsettling ups and downs of the Dow and other financial indicators is undermining Americans' sense of economic well-being at a time when more than half the population, through personal investments and 401(k) plans, have a direct stake in the financial markets.

The result is that if the Democrats take over next winter, their resurgence will be a reflection of impatience with the way the country is being governed, not with the structure of government. The result in 2007 will be resolution, not revolution.

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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