Trench Warfare: Can The Democrats Stand The Slog? genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Trench Warfare

In the most recent Gallup polling, the President's approval numbers were slightly better than those of Congress...33% to 29%. Perhaps the numbers aren't sufficient reason for alarm on the part of Democrats, but they do give one reason to ponder their meaning.

The first thought that comes to mind is the perceived success or failure of the Democrat's 100 hour pledge...subsequently replaced by ample media analysis of their first hundred days. While I've heard Speaker Pelosi explain the successes, it is my impression that the majority of voters would be hard pressed to recount any particular legislative measure that actually shifted the nation's direction on the issues that they intended to signal with their vote in the 2006 midterm election (the minimum wage increase may be the one clear exception).

An article in the Washington Post helped me better understand what may be behind these tepid Congressional numbers and the apparent perception that little has happened under Democratic leadership.

House Republicans, fighting to remain relevant in a chamber ruled by Democrats, have increasingly seized on a parliamentary technique to alter or delay nearly a dozen pieces of legislation pushed by the majority this year.

And an election-year promise by Democrats to pay for any new programs they created has made it easier for Republicans to trip them up.

Since January, GOP leaders have relied on a maneuver known as the "motion to recommit" to stymie Democrats and score political points for Republicans still adjusting to life in the minority.

The motion to recommit allows the minority a chance to amend a bill on the floor or send it back to committee, effectively killing it. In a legislative body in which the party in power controls nearly everything, it is one of the few tools the minority has to effect change.

In the 12 years of Republican control that ended in January, Democrats passed 11 motions to recommit. Republicans have racked up the same number in just five months of this Congress.

I have to repeat the numbers...the Republicans, in five months, have racked up the same number of motions to recommit as the Democrats used in twelve years of GOP congressional control. I try to avoid overreacting or rushing to draw conclusions...but these numbers seem noteworthy...if not significant.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that the Democrats have failed in their first 100 days or that their performance warrants these dismal polling numbers. On the other hand, I am questioning if the Democratic leadership has the dexterity and foresight to understand this thing we call politics...and the reality that it has become a high stakes game of strategy and perception.

Democrats say any comparison is unfair because when Republicans controlled Congress, they directed their members to vote against all Democratic motions to recommit.

Now in the majority and mindful of staying there, Democrats have given no such instruction to their members, allowing them to break with the party if they choose. Many freshmen Democrats from GOP-leaning districts find themselves voting with Republicans as a matter of survival -- a reality Republicans have seized upon.

Democrats dismiss the Republican maneuvers as largely symbolic and so arcane as to be irrelevant to the public.

"From a public policy standpoint, it's not very significant," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), regarded as an expert in parliamentary combat. "It's almost a Capture the Flag game. The number of people in America who say, 'Oh my gosh, the Republicans won another motion to recommit' is very small."

The Democrats' own rules have made it easier for Republicans to offer motions to recommit. In January, the party promised to observe "pay-go" -- finding a way to pay for any new spending rather than adding to the federal deficit. The unintended consequence is that tax proposals open legislation to modifications by the minority that would not otherwise be allowed.

This week, Democratic staffers privately discussed a rule change to limit the Republicans' ability to make motions to recommit. GOP leaders were incensed and threatened to use all available procedural techniques to block every bill except war spending legislation. But Democrats are hampered by their promise to run the chamber in a more open fashion than Republicans did when in the majority.

I like Barney Frank but his remarks suggest a tin ear and at least one eye patch...and I'm not drawing a pirate analogy...that might be too generous a comparison since statistics may well suggest that pirates were more mindful of tactical considerations.

I'll offer a more fitting analogy. If navigating politics were akin to walking the streets of an unknown city, the Democrats seem to invariably find themselves in bad neighborhoods...at the end of dark and dead end alleys...being stalked by a group of savvy street thugs intent on teaching them an old fashioned turf lesson...all the while armed with little more than the ability to ask their adversaries what it's going to take to let them off the hook without a pair of black eyes and a bloody nose.

Perhaps my assessment is too harsh but the reality of politics is that the voting public has about as much sympathy for the party in power as a crowd at a boxing match has when watching the home town underdog pin and pummel the brass belted champion against the ropes. Voters assume that both party's know the stakes and are prepared for the battles that will ensue...they simply lack patience for excuses or cries of foul play. When they vote, they vote with expectations that their candidates are prepared to do what it takes to promote and pass the legislation they seek. As much as I dislike the existing construct, is there any doubt that politics isn't for wimps and whiners?

Lastly, I think it is important to look at the comparative numbers of the President and Congress. It would be difficult to imagine that George Bush is more popular with voters than Congress...but I would bet that most voters see the President as a fighter...and when that is compared to the perception of Democrats as soft and spine deficient, it seems plausible that this leads voters to give this Congress lower approval rankings.

Don't get me wrong...I don't agree with the perceptions nor do I like what I view to be the boys will be boys bully mentality that seems to be ingrained into the voting public's political psyche. Unfortunately, it appears that the American voter has accepted that these are the rules of the game.

If the Democrats want to win in 2008, they will either need to become adept at executing their agenda accordingly or they may find themselves in the same place they were when John Kerry suffered what one might call an unexpected and unfortunate TKO. Riding the political fence reminds me of riding a bicycle…if your feet slip, it’s really gonna hurt.

Daniel DiRito | May 19, 2007 | 9:01 AM
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