Political Animal


May 14, 2011 8:40 AM Herding cats has to be easier

By Steve Benen

Last month, it became clear that President Obama wasn’t prepared to draw a line in the sand when it came to the fight over the debt ceiling. The White House had asked for a clean bill, but quickly signaled its willingness to negotiate with Republicans.

Why? In large part because too many congressional Democrats were buying into the GOP line, pushing for deficit cuts as a requirement for doing the right thing.

This month, Democratic leaders are gearing up for a major budget fight and want to offer a strong counter-weight to Republican extremism, but it’s off to a rough start. Why? In large part because too many congressional Democrats are buying into the GOP line, balking at progressive tax increases.

At issue for Democrats is whether the party risks going overboard in its embrace of tax increases — a perilous proposition for lawmakers from political battlegrounds.

Those tensions erupted at a private meeting this week of a handful of key Democratic members.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), facing reelection next year, spoke up to oppose a plan being drafted by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad that would impose a new surtax on millionaires of about three percent on top of the higher tax rates they would face when the George W. Bush tax cuts expire next year, according to several people familiar with the exchange. […]

Several centrist Democrats have been voicing concern in private sessions that Conrad’s draft may be shifting too far to the left in order to placate liberals on the committee whose votes are needed to move the legislation, according to aides.

The idea among leading Dems is to create some kind of balance. House Republicans have already approved their radical budget agenda and are gearing up for heated negotiations. Senate Dems would ideally be able to respond with a more liberal alternative, not only because it’d be a better budget, but also because it would lay down a marker towards a less right-wing compromise down the road.

But “centrist” Dems don’t want to support a progressive budget alternative, because they’re afraid voters might get mad at them.

You’ll notice, of course, that Republicans don’t have this problem. The GOP leadership embraces a far-right vision, and the rank-and-file go along.

With Democrats, nothing is ever this easy. Moderate Dems are quick to accept the Republican premise on the debt ceiling and taxes, and a handful of Dems are even leaning right when it comes to subsidies for the oil industry.

Herding cats has to be easier than this.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • hell's littlest angel on May 14, 2011 8:47 AM:

    While those Democrats are technically moderate and centrist, since those terms describe them relative to other congresspersons, they would be more accurately described as conservative.

  • c u n d gulag on May 14, 2011 8:56 AM:

    Today's Liberal Democrat is yesterday's Liberal Republican.

    Today's Centrist Democrat is yesterday's Conservative Republican.

    Today's Republican is an ignorant Christianist/Fascist thug.

  • SW on May 14, 2011 9:00 AM:

    The worst Republicans are Democrats. That is because like a disease they are inside your body. Attacking you from within. Destroying the credibility and logical consistency of your message.

    There are two primary reasons for this. One is the result of campaign cash. The other is a reluctance to lead a fear or a lack of confidence in their ability to explain the issue to their constituents when confronted by the years of propaganda that has been pushed by both the right and the media for about thirty years now. Yes, when you are in a 'conservative' read, isolated, not on the coasts region these bromides are particularly effective. But the fact that they are wrong means that if you are an effective communicator you should relish the opportunity to move the debate in the direction of common sense. But when you put the influence of money together with laziness and stupidity this is what you get.

  • Danp on May 14, 2011 9:10 AM:

    One is the result of campaign cash.

    Bingo. These cats need pork to feed their kittens.

  • zeitgeist on May 14, 2011 9:12 AM:

    There are two related root causes, one philosophical and one operational that Democrats will need to overcome to ever be as good at obtaining their goals in a given legislative session as Republicans.

    Operationally, we seem to always be playing the short game while the right has a longer view. That gives them much more freedom to discipline their caucus -- and that sense of discipline builds up over time into a culture in the caucus. We're always worried about whether we have the votes we need today, and it leads us to engage in behaviors that may work today but make it harder to ensure we have the votes tomorrow, next year, and 5 years from now. And those different cultures are also tied to a philosophical difference. Frankly, Republicans are better poker players. They know how to bluff a weak hand. We fold with a strong one. As a result, they dont let a fear of today's vote interfere with maintaining caucus discipline -- they act assured, even arrogant whether there is good reason or not. The Democrats are exactly the opposite -- seeking to please all of our contentious members (and even the irascable R's) even when we have poll after poll showing broad support for our position.

    We should have worked on changing this culture when we were in the minority -- it is in many ways easier then -- but change it we will if we are ever to really be successful at governing in the current era of Senate dysfunction.

  • a on May 14, 2011 9:19 AM:

    "But “centrist” Dems don’t want to support a progressive budget alternative, because they’re afraid voters might get mad at them."


    "But “centrist” Dems don’t want to support a progressive budget alternative, because they’re afraid their wealthy donors might get mad at them."

    There, fixed it for ya.

  • Stephen Wend on May 14, 2011 9:23 AM:

    Since when did "centrist" politicians go wobbly on reasonable and necessary taxation proposals? They are conservative! And gutless!
    This is part and parcel of how the right wing and their hired guns gradually shift perceptions on various issues. They re-define or label something and main stream media follow along like sheep. Health care reform is a classic example. Every time some IDIOT refers to it as Obama_____ they reinforce a false distortion. This is particularly ironic when the President took a single payer plan off the table and incorporated multiple Republican ideas proposed before the party was taken over by extremists. DO NOT reinforce distortions that assist the extreme right wing.

  • BrklynLibrul on May 14, 2011 9:43 AM:

    The President could, you know, exert some pressure here, given the stakes.

    But the real problem is that Beltway Dems do not in any way wish to be associated with policies that would support middle- and working-class families. It begs the question: who do they think will vote for them on Election Day? Hedge fund managers?

  • DK on May 14, 2011 9:52 AM:

    Republican legislators tow the party line because if they don't there are hard core activists that will make them pay during the next primary (e.g. Bob Bennett - UT). The left could try the same approach and run more progressive candidates against Blue Dog incumbents. I'm not sure how well that would work through. I don't think there are enough mindless ideologues on the left to make this a credible threat.

  • bcinaz on May 14, 2011 9:53 AM:

    It must be something to seek job security by assuring the destruction of what was once a thriving American middle class.

  • AK Liberal on May 14, 2011 10:17 AM:

    @zeitgeist: I take your point about party discipline, but I would suggest that there are many states and congressional districts where the only Democrat that can be elected will be conservative.

    I strongly suspect that when Sen. Nelson retires he will be replaced by a Republican. In that case, senators like Nelson will generally break right, because it's the only way they can keep getting elected.

    It strikes me that this is an inevitable difficulty for a big tent party. I would offer that a major reason that the GOP is more disciplined is that they are more or less homogenous in their views.

  • June on May 14, 2011 10:24 AM:

    If even extremely conservative Republicans are in the Tea Party primary sights, what makes centrist Dems think they have a chance in hell? Long story short, the question is always asked, why are Republicans always able to do whatever they want? A big part of that is, there are no liberal Republicans, but the Democratic Party is infested with "conservative" Democrats.

  • jjm on May 14, 2011 10:26 AM:

    The 'centrist' Democrats may have all been through what we just found out Tim Roemer (possible candidate for Sec of Commerce) went through: a Koch Brothers "Institute" that shapes the thinking in their retrograde direction.

  • Alli on May 14, 2011 10:26 AM:

    @brklynlibrul: WHAT KIND OF PRESSURE?

    how many times do we have to see a report like before people get it? WHAT KIND OF PRESSURE? What Pressure is going to work on people all of you have called "bought & sold", gutless, and DINO's? Let's hear these suggestions.

  • Reynardine on May 14, 2011 11:11 AM:

    As someone who has a nice clowder of grove cats, I tell you herding them is easy. All you need is a can of sardines.

  • weboy on May 14, 2011 11:13 AM:

    Just to follow up on Alli's point - the reason Democrats don't move, en masse, towards the most liberal ideas is that Democratic party voters don't hold anyone in leadership accountable. I'm not talking about the problems with "moderate" Dems in swing seats; I'm talking about the far more basic problem that most of the senior leaders in the Democratic party come from vastly safe districts (like Nancy Pelosi, often in inner city, urban districts Republicans can't possibly touch) where no one, ever, would think to challenge or unseat them. Until progressive liberals show the kind of "Tea Party" anger that actually shows that safe Democrats shouldn't consider their seats as given... there's utterly no incentive for elected officials from the D side to work harder to find a point of view and stick. Yet, wehn one remotely suggests things like "let's find primary candidates to challenge leaders like Pelosi, Hoyer and others", the idea is met with horror and a chorus of "we can't do that." Of course we can't. And because we don't... nothing changes. And, in the end, it's so much easier to blame the right.

  • Fr33d0m on May 14, 2011 12:11 PM:

    Until we get vocal and stop voting for these people, this will continue. That said, can you imagine if the Repugnicos had control of both houses?

  • bdop4 on May 14, 2011 12:20 PM:


    Pelosi ain't the problem. She's done more with what she has than any other Democratic leader. I'm looking more at Reid, Shumer, Durbin, et al. They are the mid-level captains that should be really reframing the debate.

    The pressure Obama could bring is to STOP USING THE GOP FRAMING on issues and directly state liberal goals and ideals to the people to help bring grassroots pressure on to the rest of the party. The problem is that Obama is more ideologically aligned with Ronald Reagan than FDR and won't take a stand unless it's a gimme.

  • ShadeTail on May 14, 2011 1:05 PM:

    bdop4: You're ignoring pretty much every single public statement Obama has made. *He doesn't use GOP framing*. The most recent example was his immigration speech in Texas. He quite explicitly made the case for liberal immigration reform and openly attacked and mocked the GOP for their opposition. That's been his method all along.

    So kindly stop rewriting history. He pushes and presses and chides, and always always always, Congressional dems refuse to go along with him. That's the reality Obama has to put up with, and it only makes his job harder when people like you put the blame where it doesn't belong.

  • flounder on May 14, 2011 1:58 PM:

    I hope I live to see the day that the 70% of us that want to raise taxes on millionaires get a little representation in Congress.

  • zeitgeist on May 14, 2011 2:05 PM:

    AK Liberal, you are undoubtedly correct about that added complication. It is difficult to know, however, whether forcefully using committee positions (for example) as both carrot and stick would help at all because near as I can tell Reid has never really tried. We gave Joementum whatever he wanted even after he spoke at the Republican convention. Even in a big tent party there has to be some limit somewhere. I know times and homo/heterogeneity have changed in the Senate, but you know LBJ had ways of dealing with votes that seemed to work pretty well. . .

  • AK Liberal on May 14, 2011 3:26 PM:

    ...but you know LBJ had ways of dealing with votes that seemed to work pretty well. . .

    I'm glad that you brought that up. I was a pretty young kid when LBJ was President, so I have no memory of his Senate. I may be wrong, but it strikes me that LBJ had something Reid has never enjoyed: liberal Republicans with which he might strike a deal.

    There's no one left to deal with across the aisle so all deals will be made within the caucus. It's ugly and unfortunate, but I fear that the punitive approach will drive people like Nelson into the GOP, much as Spector defected to the Democrats. Even if they only vote with us half the time, that strikes me as a better deal than a GOP senator that never votes with us.

  • Georgia on May 14, 2011 4:53 PM:

    The truth is that neither Democrats nor Republicans want to fool with corporate capitalism. Only mother nature can take care of this.

  • Eisbaer on May 14, 2011 7:50 PM:

    There are two closely-related types within the Democratic Party who are balking at tax hikes. There are the old-school Rockefeller Republicans, who "talk liberal" about anything except economic issues (on which they are just as stalwart in their defense of wealth and privilege) and post-Gingrich have been forced to make their (let's pray to God temporary) home within the Democratic Party. (Their patron saint is Timothy Geithner.) The other are just spineless pols up for re-election who worry about how tax hikes will play to their electorate.