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Hung Up in Washington


As the nation heads toward the November elections, it is now equally divided between the parties just as it was in 2000, but there are some important differences. George W. Bush’s radical presidency has united the Democratic Party more closely than at any time since the end of World War II. True, Democrats solidly opposed Barry Goldwater, but not with the same animus. And Goldwater wasn’t an incumbent president. Bush in 2000 convinced many Americans, including most of the pundits, that he would govern moderately. (Those who had talked to leaders of the right knew differently.) In recent elections, environmentalists and those favoring abortion rights mainly supported the Democrats but perhaps as many as a third of them voted Republican. In 2004 such “swing voters” are more likely to turn out for the Democratic nominee—although that of course depends on who that person is.

Many people have learned—or should have learned—from the 2000 election that their votes can matter. The hijacking of Florida produced a lasting anger that will probably energize the Democratic “base,” those committed party members who are most likely to vote. (When Democratic candidates mention Florida, they unfailingly receive loud cheers and whistles.) If Ralph Nader chooses to run, that would of course complicate matters for the Democrats. But it seems doubtful that as many people will make the mistake of voting for him again in the belief that their vote doesn’t matter.

The pollster John Zogby, who first predicted that the 2000 election would be a tie, says that he now foresees that each of the two major parties’ candidates will get 45 percent of the vote in November, with the remaining 10 percent undecided. Zogby points out that while there was much talk of a Republican sweep of both houses of Congress in 2002, several of the Senate elections were actually quite close, and many voters made up their minds on election morning. The Republicans now control the Senate and the House by narrow margins. Congress, therefore, reflects the country at large: essentially evenly divided, and, like the base of each party, highly partisan and more than a little angry.

That, at least, is how things look now, early in 2004. But politics can change radically within even a few days. Sweeping theories are at best tenuous. In the late Sixties we were told about “The Emerging Republican Majority,” and more recently we’ve had “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” There is a certain refusal to accept that politics may depend on shifting factors and situations: the quality of the candidates, the impact of immediate events, and the atmosphere of the times. Would Richard Nixon have been elected in 1968 (thus setting off that emerging Republican majority and theories about “conservative realignment” in the US) if Lyndon Johnson had ended the Vietnam War by then, or even imposed a convincing bombing pause in time to help Hubert Humphrey? (As it was, George Wallace received 13.5 percent of the vote, while Nixon won by 1 percent.) The 1980 election supposedly demonstrated a “swing to the right,” but it was a virtual tie going into the final weekend before the voting—and then Jimmy Carter, despite promises he had been given to the contrary and the expectations of success, failed to get the American hostages held in Iran released. Had he succeeded, there may well not have been a Republican sweep. Several Democratic senators were defeated by far smaller margins than those by which Reagan won their states.

The close division of Congress, in these times of vital questions about war, about economic policy, about equity in tax and social policy, about our natural resources, even about the very nature of government, has led to a new and more intense level of partisanship. Beyond that, the current division has brought about institutional changes, which, should they become permanent, are adverse to the future of democracy itself.

A timely new book by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Like No Other Time: The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever, reveals a great deal about the period we have just been through and, unlike most books by politicians, is well written and highly readable. Daschle, who is in his third term in the Senate and previously served in the House, is a liberal Democrat from South Dakota, who became Senate majority leader in 1994, beating the gregarious and popular Christopher Dodd of Connecticut by one vote. This event in itself suggested that the seemingly mild-mannered Daschle has a far tougher inner core than is apparent on the surface. A prairie-state liberal, not quite as much a populist as his North Dakota colleagues and friends Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, Daschle also has a pragmatic streak that leads him to make compromises with the Republican administration—as when he ended up, after considerable agonizing, supporting the resolution authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq. (Daschle had earlier tried unsuccessfully to encourage Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar to formulate a more limited resolution.)

Daschle often has a difficult time trying to get Democratic senators, who are notably independent and even mulish, to follow him. (Republicans are by nature more cohesive, perhaps because they are more apt to respect authority.) He has a canny instinct for understanding complex Senate rules, yet sometimes he disappoints his Democratic colleagues by not exerting stronger leadership. But that may now be impossible for Senate leaders. In this age of politicians who largely raise their own funds and are much concerned, even fearful, about pleasing their own constituencies, Lyndon Johnson would never get away with his strong-arm tactics.

Daschle is sometimes too nice for his own good. It is clear from talking to him that he still has a hard time accepting the reality that when the war resolution was before Congress, Dick Gephardt, then the House minority leader, with whom he worked quite closely, betrayed him by going to the White House, without a word to him, and, in a Rose Garden ceremony that also included Joseph Lieberman, stood by while the President declared a compromise that amounted to a victory for himself.

In his book, Daschle describes the odd result of the 2000 election, when the Senate was evenly divided and the two parties shared power, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the tie votes. Then, in May of 2001, Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched from being a Republican to being an Independent who would vote with the Democrats, thus giving them control once again. Jeffords made his decision after strenuous behind-the-scenes negotiations in which both parties tried to gain a majority in the Senate. Over a period of months, Daschle had strongly encouraged Jeffords to make the switch, and at the same time he tried to encourage Republicans John McCain and Lincoln Chafee, a freshman from Rhode Island, to leave the Republican Party. Concurrently, Republicans were trying to convince the conservative Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia to switch parties. Daschle describes McCain and Chafee as seeming “open at least to an invitation,” but in the end, of course, they stayed Republican. Jeffords’s decision caused an earthquake on Capitol Hill: there’s little as shattering there as losing power, or as exhilarating as gaining it. The size of staffs and offices, and committee assignments, are all affected.

Not long after Jeffords’s defection, however, the 2002 elections gave Bush control of all three branches of the government. The Democrats must now struggle to gain a majority of votes in the House and Senate by winning over some Republican moderates, or, in the Senate, by filibustering or threatening to. (It takes sixty votes to break a filibuster.) The Democrats don’t often win a vote in the Senate, and when they do, it tends to be a vote on procedural matters. Referring to moderate Republicans, a Democratic senator says, “They’re never with us when we really need them.”

At the same time many Democrats, especially in the Senate, live in fear of Bush and his unscrupulous political strategist, Karl Rove.1 Both men have demonstrated that they can be utterly ruthless, especially by questioning their Democratic opponents’ patriotism. In 2002, they approved Republican ads showing Democratic senators’ faces alongside those of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Such an ad was run against Daschle after he became Senate majority leader in 2001, though he wasn’t up for reelection until 2004. He is now a major White House target.

The combination of near unity on the part of Republicans and fear among Democrats has rendered Congress essentially passive toward the President’s foreign policy. It has paid scant attention to embarrassing and dangerous intelligence failures and enabled the President to lie about the reasons for going to war in Iraq. It has produced a tax code heavily slanted toward the rich, and enacted an appalling new Medicare law.


At a time when fundamental questions face the country, even about the very nature of government, the closely divided Congress has led to a new level of partisanship.

Between the 2002 elections and the Republicans’ officially taking control of the Senate the following January, the Majority Leader Trent Lott, after making a racially tinged “joke” about Strom Thurmond, was forced out of his job, which was then filled by Bill Frist, a heart surgeon from Tennessee. Frist’s polite, considerate manner and the difficulty he has encountered from some of Lott’s allies are central to understanding how the Senate has—or has not—dealt with matters critical to the nation since 2002.

Like Daschle’s, Frist’s mild demeanor masks toughness and ambition. Though conservative, he’s closer to the center than the other powerful Senate leaders—including Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, whose rude behavior and sometimes wild rhetoric make him perhaps the most obnoxious member of the Senate2 ; John Kyl, of Arizona; and Don Nickles, of Oklahoma. They are all more familiar than Frist is with the Senate rules and sometimes outmaneuver him on tactics, thereby adding to the partisan atmosphere. So, though the Senate appears on the surface to be a calmer place than it was before Frist took over, that’s deceptive.3

In dealing with the nation’s business, the House has long been more partisan (and rowdy) than the Senate, the big change coming after the Republicans, led by the radical Newt Gingrich, took over the House in 1994. Though Gingrich has since been replaced by the milder-mannered Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the House is essentially run by the Republican whip, Tom DeLay. (Gingrich’s overzealousness caused the Republicans to lose a number of House seats in 1998. He ran ads on the Monica Lewinsky affair even after Clinton had been impeached and at a time when there were far more pressing issues facing the country. And so the Republicans forced him out.)4

DeLay, the mean-spirited partisan from Texas, has extended his influence from Capitol Hill to the lobbying and law firms in downtown Washington, insisting that they hire more Republicans or, in the case of some trade associations, that they be headed by a Republican. DeLay is unforgiving and he has the troops to enforce his will. Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, was denied a committee chairmanship because he had defied the House leadership by co-sponsoring the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, which was signed into law in 2002.

  1. 1

    See my article on Rove, “The Enforcer,” The New York Review, May 1, 2003.

  2. 2

    Santorum stated in April 2003 that if the Supreme Court says you have the right to gay sex “within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

  3. 3

    For a view of a different Senate at a different time, see Don Oberdorfer, Senator Mansfield: The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat (Smithsonian Books, 2003).

  4. 4

    For a fascinating history of how the House has developed, see Nelson W. Polsby, How Congress Evolves: Social Bases of Institutional Change (Oxford University Press, 2003).

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