As the first year of the new Democratic Congress sputtered to a close, it was fairly obvious that things have not gone how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi planned. One large part of the Democrats’ problem is that they don’t seem to have noticed that Republicans are thinking about political strategy, not policy. If Democrats want to play the game, they have to take off the gloves, and take some risks.
Take the annual budget. President Bush spent the fall obstinately saying he’d veto any bills above his spending ceiling, and Republicans in Congress stuck with him. Democrats tried to lure the GOP by adding popular programs, but they didn’t see that Republicans had abandoned good-faith negotiations long ago. I recently asked a Democratic staffer whether he considered cutting GOP priorities to get the spending down and end the impasse. No, he insisted, spending bills have always been bipartisan. While it’s true that the Appropriations committees traditionally put their projects above partisan bickering, this year Bush’s use of the bully pulpit hijacked the spending bills into the political realm.
Bush, going into his final year in office, has little incentive not to veto. But rather than force Bush to defend a veto of the popular programs he’d torpedo, Democrats assembled a budget at Bush’s level and went home for the holidays. This was pragmatic, but it let Bush win without a public fight. In part, Democrats made their own beds by waiting until so late in the session to push many of these issues.
Similar scenes have played out on energy, taxes, Iraq and children’s health insurance, leaving advocates grumbling that Republicans rarely did this well when they controlled Congress. “These are the guys you want to sell a car to,” one frustrated advocate said.