The Democrats' Silver Lining

The wave of big-name departures is spooking the Democrats as the 2010 campaign begins. Reihan Salam on the upside of the exits—and why Obama should take a page from the Bush playbook.

Last night, Senate Democrats suffered a serious blow when Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat first elected to the Senate in 1992, announced his retirement. Faced with the prospect of a challenge from John Hoeven, the state's wildly popular Republican governor, Dorgan seems to have decided that an expensive and exhausting campaign wasn't worth the strain on his family, and it's hard not to sympathize.

Obama could try governing from the center. The other option is to follow the Bush-Rove strategy of winning by uniting your party and energizing your base.

Embattled Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, his reputation badly tarnished by his Wall Street ties, is also announcing that he's bowing out of his reelection bid. And in Colorado, a state that had been Exhibit A for the revival of Democratic fortunes at the tail end of the Bush era, Democratic Governor Bill Ritter also announced his retirement after one dismal term. This all comes after Parker Griffith, a newly-elected Blue Dog from northern Alabama, decided to abandon the House Democrats late last month. Naturally, Republicans are hoping that this represents the end of a short-lived Democratic ascendancy. President Obama can prove them wrong. But he can only doing it by taking a page from two of his favorite people, namely George W. Bush and Karl Rove.

First, it's important to note that this week's retirements aren't necessarily bad news for Democrats, and that November is still a long way off. Chances are that Dorgan, who was running over 20 points behind Hoeven in the latest polls, couldn't have won reelection if he tried. And while Dodd could easily have lost to a credible Republican challenger like former Rep. Rob Simmons, the same cannot be said for Connecticut's most popular Democrat and Dodd's most likely successor, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Griffith was never a reliable vote for the Democrats, and his departure hasn't caused much in the way of real anxiety. Ritter, meanwhile, was a pro-life moderate loathed by Colorado's labor unions, and there's a decent chance that a stronger Colorado Democrat like Mayor John Hickenlooper of Denver will step into the breach. This is hardly the end of the world. It does suggest, however, that Democrats will be working with narrower margins come 2011, and that time is running out for the kind of structural policies that could permanently strengthen the left.

President Obama could respond to renewed momentum on the right by curbing his ambitions, or by placing heavier emphasis on deficit-fighting and tax relief for small business and other priorities championed by conservatives. Taking a page from his 2008 campaign, he could try to transcend our deep political divisions and reach out to right-leaning independents frustrated by a Washington that seems increasingly out of touch. Somehow, I doubt that the president is going to win over tea partiers who see him—correctly, in my view—as fundamentally a believer in big government.

The other option is to follow the Bush-Rove strategy of winning by uniting your party and energizing your base. This is the strategy that net-roots progressives desperately want. And by delivering on kitchen-table issues, it could also bring working-class Democrats to the polls in what would normally be a low-turnout election.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush, like Obama, ran as "a uniter, not a divider" who wanted to move beyond the polarized politics of the Clinton years, and who had harsh words for the congressional Republicans committed to shrinking the size of government. Bush's near-defeat came as a rude shock to Rove, who concluded that the campaign had placed too much emphasis on a shrinking number of middle-of-the-road voters when it should have worked to fire up evangelical conservatives. So began the strategy of uniting the right that culminated in Bush's 2004 reelection. Granted, President Bush did reach out to Democrats on education and immigration reform, and dozens of Democrats in the House and Senate backed his call for war in Iraq. (Indeed, one could argue that Bush was in some respects more substantively bipartisan than Obama.) But on the central domestic policy issues, ranging from unfunded tax cuts to an unfunded Medicare prescription drug entitlement, Republicans relied on strict party line votes, thanks in large part to the iron-fisted leadership of Trent Lott and Tom DeLay.

Despite big majorities in the House and the Senate, President Obama has had a difficult time passing his domestic agenda. As the White House has discovered on health reform and cap-and-trade, it can't always depend on Blue Dogs who are keeping a watchful eye on conservative voters back home. The "margin of error" afforded by these large majorities has given Blue Dogs an excuse to stray from the reservation, and the Democratic leadership has been reluctant to use sticks to bring them back. The end result has been a broader collapse of party discipline.

Throughout this year, the Democrats have failed to play their very strong hand effectively. Consider the final phase of the health reform debate in the Senate, when Harry Reid struggled to keep Senators Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman in line. Lieberman eventually killed the idea of an early Medicare buy-in for older workers, an idea that could have proved extremely popular on the campaign trail. One wonders why a Medicare buy-in wasn't placed front-and-center in the first place. The most effective Republican line of attack against the Democratic reform effort was, ironically enough, that it threatened Medicare. Proposing a massive and voluntary expansion of Medicare might be bad public policy—it certainly cuts against my own instincts—but it is undeniably appealing to voters in their 50s who look with envy on older friends and relatives who have access to Medicare's generous coverage. Had a Medicare buy-in been on the table earlier on, the president could have used his considerable rhetorical powers to make the case for it in, say, Nebraska and Connecticut, making it hard for even the most stubborn centrist to say no.

The Obama White House still has time to take a more aggressive, more partisan, more Bush-like approach to governing. The recent decision to "ping pong" the health bill rather than go the traditional route of a conference committee is a sign that Democrats intend to freeze Republicans out of the process. President Bush managed to pass his 2001 tax cut through the highly arcane reconciliation process, which allows a simple majority to do an end-run around the filibuster. One can imagine Democrats using reconciliation to pass a Medicare buy-in or even a strong public option they could call, per a suggestion floated by congressional Democrats last year, Medicare Part E for "everyone." Just as Democrats condemned the Bush approach in 2001, Republicans will cry foul, accusing Democrats of engineering a government takeover of the health sector and undermining the democratic process. But that won't change the fact that Democrats will have created facts on the ground that Republicans will have an extremely hard time reversing. An added bonus is that soon-to-be-retired Democrats like Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd are free to vote for left-field legislation that reflect their deepest ideological convictions without fear of reprisals from angry donors.

As a believer in a smaller, cheaper government, I have no problem with President Obama moving to the center and abandoning his sweeping efforts to transform the American economy. If I were a liberal, however, I'd want him to go for gold—to push through an agenda that working and middle class populists can rally behind, and that doesn't seek bipartisan compromise for its own sake.

This all assumes, of course, that the Mayan Prophecy of 2012 doesn't come to pass, that humanity isn't annihilated in an orgy of nuclear violence and destruction, or that catastrophic climate change doesn't reduce us to bands of half-starved cannibal nomads out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But that sounds like a 2010s kind of problem.

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Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.