Elections used to have consequences

ELECTIONS USED TO HAVE CONSEQUENCES…. I was looking over the election returns from 2008 last night. I hadn’t thought about it in a while, but I was reminded just how remarkably successful Democrats were in the cycle. It was a genuinely impressive electoral display — Dems didn’t just win, they dominated.

Obama won states a Democrat hadn’t carried in a generation. Democratic candidates won Senate races in states where the party is supposed to be weak — Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana, Montana, and Arkansas. House Dems built up the largest congressional majority in three decades. Obama’s 52.8% of the popular vote was the highest of any candidate in either party in 20 years, and the highest for a non-incumbent in 56 years.

Republicans were left as a small, demoralized, and discredited party. The GOP found itself leaderless and directionless, with a policy agenda that is as unpopular as it is ineffective. They had held the reins of power and failed in such a spectacular fashion, some wondered how long it would take for the party to recover. It was the beginning of a new day in American politics.

At least, that’s what it seemed like at the time.

The word “unprecedented” is almost certainly thrown around too much — I know I probably overuse it — but in every similar American electoral situation ever, the result of an election like this has been exactly the same. When a party and its presidential ticket dominate on this scale, that party earned the opportunity to govern. “Moderates” from the minority party would tend to go along with the majority as often as was possible. That the new administration would be able to fill key government posts and judicial vacancies with Senate-approved nominees wasn’t even open to question; it was a foregone conclusion.

Most of the congressional minority, in these situations, would continue to oppose the majority’s agenda — in other words, they’d vote against it — but the notion of simply blocking the nation’s lawmaking process, immediately in the wake of their own catastrophic failures, was simply ridiculous. Such an option was so genuinely absurd, it was literally out of the question.

It’s part of what makes the Republican tactics of the last 13 months so extraordinary — it’s the first time in memory that a major political party decided, en masse, that elections simply shouldn’t have consequences. We’ve never had a minority lose a national landslide and then decide that the huge governing majority must not even be able to vote on its own agenda.

As an institutional matter, it’s almost tragic to see Republicans deliberately break the American political process, and then stand to reap rewards for their reckless intransigence. But as an electoral matter, I’m not at all sure Democratic policymakers appreciate the situation they find themselves in.

Looking over the latest NYT/CBS poll, Americans are still predisposed to reject Republicans and prefer Democrats, but Congress’ approval rating is down to 15%, its lowest support in two years. Anti-incumbent attitudes are overwhelming — just 8% of respondents said members of Congress have done a good enough job to deserve another term.

That’s the worst result for incumbents since 1994 — and as I recall, 1994 was a fairly consequential year for Congress.

There are competing explanations for this, and not everyone who’s angry with policymakers is upset for the same reasons. But if Democrats are going to save themselves, they’re going to have to decide, immediately, that they’re not going to accept failure. Or put another way, they’re going to have to stop accepting failure.

Now, the party’s response to this is compelling: “Brilliant advice, jackass, but thanks to Massachusetts, we can’t break Republican filibusters. Sheer force of will is meaningless, and so is telling lawmakers to ‘get it done.’ They can’t.”

It’s precisely why the status quo can’t continue. Democrats can’t let Republican break Congress out of spite; the consequences are too severe for the institution and the country. Some possible strategies for the majority to consider:

* Start using the phrase “up-or-down vote” all the time. If Republicans had a dominant governing majority, and a failed Dem minority prevented Congress from functioning, the apoplexy would be overwhelming. Americans would hear about the obstructionism constantly. There would, in all likelihood, be organized marches on Washington. Put simply, I’d like Democratic leaders to think about what Republicans would do if the situations were completely reversed. Then they should do that. Americans would be outraged if they had any idea what the GOP has been doing — maybe someone should tell them.

* Take advantage of every opportunity. Using reconciliation as much as humanly possible should be a no-brainer. The “nuclear option” should be put on the table, too. Endorse Harkin/Shaheen. Scour the rules and procedural minutiae and figure out if Republicans who want to filibuster can’t be forced to literally do so. Search for GOP statesmen — Lugar? — and ask if they’re really willing to destroy the workings of the United States Senate.

* Go on the offensive. Organize rallies in Maine and explain that Olympia Snowe, by endorsing her party’s obstructionism, is single-handedly responsible for the fact that Congress can’t function, and it’s within her power to put things right and let key bills get up-or-down votes.

* Give voters who elected Democrats something to be excited about. Voters will be impressed with accomplishments, so maybe it’d be wise to give them some. Dems can start by passing the damn health care reform package.

It’s not too late. Finish health care. Pass a jobs bill. Go after irresponsible banks. Bring some safeguards to Wall Street. Fix student loans. Pass an energy bill. Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” This not a fanciful wish-list; it’s all entirely feasible.

Democrats were elected to do exactly this. It’s time to prove that elections have consequences — whether those who lose the elections like it or not.