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The Two Democratic Parties

This column was written by Matthew Continetti.



On November 9, less than 48 hours after Democrats captured the House and a few hours before Sen. George Allen conceded defeat to James Webb, giving Democrats control of the Senate, President Bush had lunch at the White House with Democratic representatives Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer. In the brief photo opportunity following their meal, Bush played the gracious host. He twice thanked Pelosi and Hoyer for making the trip down Pennsylvania Avenue. He twice said the lunchtime conversation had been "constructive." And he twice congratulated Pelosi on her anticipated elevation to speaker of the House.

Pelosi, beaming, said she had offered Bush "the hand of friendship" and that the meeting had been "productive." She said she would work with the White House "in a confidence-building way" that "gets results." The two parties would debate the issues, she went on, but would also try to solve problems in a bipartisan manner. "We've made history," Pelosi said. "Now we have to make progress."

It was a fine sentiment, consonant with the view that last week's Democratic victory was essentially a rejection of the status quo in Washington and the conduct of American policy in Iraq. The electorate had voted to upend the balance of power and force change upon the capital. Whether the Democratic Congress will be able to bring change in a way that also broadens the party's appeal and bolsters its recent gains, no one knows. What seems plain, though, is that the greatest obstacle to future Democratic success is the Democrats themselves.

Over the next two years, there will be two Democratic parties. The congressional Democratic party will investigate the Bush administration and pass as much center-left legislation as possible. The presidential Democratic party, meanwhile — comprising aspirants to the executive office: Sens. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Russ Feingold, and Barack Obama; former Sen. John Edwards; Govs. Bill Richardson and Tom Vilsack; perhaps Al Gore — will travel the country, raising money, holding debates, and laying the groundwork for a national campaign that might put one of them in the White House and (they hope) result in an era of unified Democratic control of government.

The great fear of some Democratic strategists is that the congressional party will behave in ways that alienate the independents who brought it to power, thus threatening the presidential party's chances for victory in 2008. "Will the presidential candidates in 2008 have to run away from the Democratic Congress, or will they be able to work together?" one think tank scholar asked last week. He thought the former more likely. And the congressional party's power structure and the nature of the incoming Democratic majority lend some support to his claim.


The Democratic congressional leadership is untested. With the sole exception of Harry Reid in the Senate, who was briefly majority whip during the 18 months of Democratic control between 2001 and 2002, none of the new leaders has ever served in the majority leadership. Pelosi, who was first elected in a special election in 1987, spent only seven years in Congress before the Republican Revolution of 1994. She became minority whip in 2001, when David Bonior resigned from the House to run for governor of Michigan; she became minority leader in 2002, when Dick Gephardt resigned from the House to run for president. In both leadership elections, Pelosi's chief rival was Hoyer, a 12-term congressman from Maryland who is slightly to her right. When Pelosi became leader, Hoyer became whip.

Hoyer is likely to run for majority leader, and the Democrats to whom I have spoken expect him to win easily. This election cycle, Hoyer raised money and campaigned vigorously for Democratic House candidates across the country. He enjoys personal loyalty from many members of the caucus — which his chief rival, Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha, does not.

The third-most important leader is the whip, who is responsible for "whipping up" support for votes. There was a chance last week that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the architect of the new House majority and a rising power in the Democratic party, would seek the job. If he had done so, it would have meant a battle between Emanuel and Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a well-liked member of the Congressional Black Caucus who was next in line for the position. But late in the week, Emanuel said he would run for caucus chairman instead. This means there will be no fight and both Emanuel and Clyburn will ease into their leadership roles. Still, both are relatively new to governing. Clyburn was first elected in 1992, Emanuel in 2002.

To govern successfully, the Democratic leadership will have to navigate the majority's intra-party tensions. Last week the chief tension was said to be between "liberal" and "conservative" Democrats. In truth, in the House, there are fewer conservative Democrats among the incoming freshmen than some have suggested. On Election Day, Democrats had their largest gains in districts where a moderate-to-liberal Republican was replaced by a liberal Democrat. Political scientist Thomas F. Schaller, author of Whistling Past Dixie, points out that 10 of the 28 most liberal House Republicans lost to Democrats and that a third of Republican-held seats in the Northeast switched parties. The most conservative incoming House Democrat is probably Heath Shuler of North Carolina's Eleventh District, a former quarterback for the Washington Redskins who is pro-life and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But Shuler is the exception, not the rule. In the House, both political parties are more ideologically uniform than ever before.

This is not quite the case in the Senate, where Democrats will have a much slimmer majority, 51 seats to the Republicans' 49, and moderates of both parties like to play spoiler. Just as Republican Senate leaders had to worry about GOP "mavericks" Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Lincoln Chafee, Mike DeWine, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain, Democratic Senate leaders will have to worry about centrists like Ben and Bill Nelson, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, Max Baucus, Ken Salazar, and Joe Lieberman. Newcomers to the Senate, such as Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Jon Tester of Montana, may also move in a more centrist direction. And no one knows how James Webb will behave.

If the Democratic leaders are able to corral their respective caucuses and shape the attitudes and votes of freshmen members, they will still have to contend with, and perhaps occasionally rein in, the liberal lions. Along with the new faces it brings to Washington, the 2006 election will elevate familiar ones to power. In the House, John Conyers is expected to chair the Judiciary Committee, Henry Waxman the Government Reform Committee, John Dingell the Energy and Commerce Committee, Charles Rangel the Ways and Means Committee, Barney Frank the Financial Services Committee, and George Miller the Education and the Workforce Committee. In the Senate, Patrick Leahy will likely chair the Judiciary Committee, Carl Levin the Armed Services Committee, and Ted Kennedy the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

These men are all savvy liberals with their own agendas, and they all want to make as much trouble for the Bush administration as possible. Depending on how they do so, that project might distract from the Democratic leadership's efforts to "make progress." And trouble of another sort could arise if, as expected, Pelosi appoints Alcee Hastings of Florida, who in 1989 became the sixth federal judge to be impeached by Congress in American history, to head the House Intelligence Committee over ranking member Jane Harman of California, who is to the right of her party but at the center of public opinion on national security issues.

The most dangerous potential trap for the congressional Democrats involves the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror. Among Republicans and Democrats in Washington there is little doubt that the failure so far to achieve victory in Iraq played a large part in the defeat of the GOP congressional majority. But the Democrats' ability to influence the conduct of the war is another matter. It is unknown exactly how the public would respond if the Democrats passed a bill calling for retreat from Iraq or cutting off appropriations for the war — or, for that matter, ending the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance program or expanding the legal rights accorded to terrorist detainees — but the reaction would probably not be favorable.

There are some signs that the Democratic leadership understands this and will focus its legislative efforts on economic issues favorable to Democrats while allowing criticisms of the Iraq war to be aired in committee hearings. On election eve, on the Huffington Post, Pelosi outlined an agenda for the 110th Congress. It includes enacting all the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, raising the minimum wage, requiring the government to negotiate drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies, passing another stem cell research bill, "cutting interest rates for student loans in half," cutting the tax credits and other subsidies that go to the oil companies, and "fighting any attempt to privatize Social Security." The agenda lacks any call for immediate "redeployment" of troops from Iraq. It says nothing about the Patriot Act or the domestic surveillance program. It ignores the looming nuclear threats posed by North Korea and Iran.

And that might be the best thing for the Democrats. One liberal columnist told me last week his hope that the Democratic majority would spend the next two years more or less ignoring national security while holding hearings and passing bills addressing what political scientist Jacob Hacker calls the "great risk shift" — the economic dislocations wrought by globalization that have done so much to make voters pessimistic about the American economy. In this scenario, a rise in the minimum wage, student debt relief, and other small economic reforms enacted by the congressional Democrats would strengthen the case of the presidential Democrats.

The 2008 Democratic presidential nominee would then have room to tack right on national security, leading her to victory. The Democrats would have unified control of government for the first time since 1993. And remember how well things worked out for them then?

By Matthew Continetti
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