Democrats Need Courage Where It Counts

The House Floor - Breaking a parliamentary roadblock, the Senate votes to begin debate on a resolution that calls for combat troops to leave Iraq by the end of March 2008. Details soon.
This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

Voters curious about how a Democratic regime might govern would be better advised paying attention to the Democratic Congress than the Democratic candidates right now. This is where the party's principles collide with the party's intestinal fortitude. The mixture has been has been gaseous lately.

Where political storms form perfectly, the Democrats have sailed competently. A political perfect storm occurs when principle, popularity and purse strings all coincide. A competent party capitalizes on those rare alignments. A courageous or daring political party sails toward principle even when the other winds aren't perfect.

The debate over funding the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) has been a perfect storm for the Democrats and they navigated it well. From the perspective of Democratic principles, this is a no-brainer. It's a no-brainer for many Congressional Republicans, too.

Politically it is easier than a no-brainer, thus a perfect job for the Democratic Party. How can you lose by helping to provide health insurance for the nation's worst-off children? The President's opposition is bewildering, but perhaps it is principled in some way I cannot quite figure out.

Financially, there are no party donors who seriously oppose the Democrats for pushing hard to increase funding for CHIP. So it's a perfect storm. The Democrats, with the help of many Republicans, passed straightforward legislation and sent it to the president to veto.

It is hard to imagine what principles publicly espoused by Democrats anywhere, anyplace would stop them from pushing for a vote on the issue of how hedge funds and private equity investors ought to be taxed. The principle at stake is progressive taxation: greater incomes should pay taxes at rates equal to or more than smaller incomes, not at lower rates. Democrats have been talking a lot about this kind of inequity in the Hedge Fund Hyper-Gilded Age.

The issue with today's financial Goliaths is complex but boils down to this: should the income received by managers of private equity funds and hedge funds by taxed as ordinary income or at the lower, favorable rate capital gains rate? Despite the complexity, Democratic principle is clear. Certainly, it is clear enough that Congress should at least vote on the issue.

The problem is purse strings. Democrats get a tremendous amount of money from these fountains of new American wealth. House Democrats are more willing to brave the wrath of fat-cats. Senate Democrats have folded and signaled they don't intend to take up any of this tricky business this year. For seven years Democrats have complained that the Bush administration wouldn't stand up to Big Business. It's a staple of every candidate's stump speech. In this case, Senate Democrats caved after their sugar daddies' first hiccup.

Another consistent rhetorical message from all quarters of the party for the past four years has been that the Bush administration has been unnecessarily cavalier with civil liberties in the name of preventing terrorism. A central issue has been warrantless wiretaps, which most Democrats and some judges have protested vehemently. The relevant laws need to be rewritten right now. Money is not a factor here. Principle is not a factor here; Democrats of every stripe believe any domestic snooping needs supervision from special courts.

This time popularity is the issue. Democrats are terrified of the "soft on terror" label so are wary of pushing for civil liberties over appearing tough. President Bush paints the picture simplistically: make Americans safe no matter what. Democrats worry they can't win that spin war.

House Democrats are more aggressive and again are willing to roll the dice on the principles they have been espousing since 9/11. Senate Democrats are timidly hesitating. If they don't get off the dime, an essential part of their criticism of the Bush administration will be rendered hollow.

Since Reagan, Democrats have been scared to death of being unpopular. That, of course, is a recipe for being unpopular. Democratic candidates on the stump are bold and gutsy. Democratic members of Congress, the place that counts, are scared to sail unless the winds are perfect. They rarely are.

Recalling that 2008 is a presidential election year and thus a year of no legislating, the 110th Congress has two months and change to do its thing. This Democratic Congress, void of daring, is at risk of being dead in the water.

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