I certainly wouldn't want to indicate I have any unique insight on how everyone feels around this place but I thought you might be interested in how one Senate staffer is feeling.Bolding is mine. I wanted to quote the whole thing, but that was the important bit. The Dems just don't get that it's not about some nonexistent line from mythical "left" to mythical "right". It never has been. And they're going to be crushed for it.
My background is like probably the majority of staffers I know. I came to DC, from a far superior climate and quality of life, because I wanted to save the world. I arrived, and took a job in the House, at what I still view as the nadir of Congress - in 1996. Republicans had recently taken over Congress and had 230 seats in the House and 52 in the Senate. Democrats were in a state of shock and we watched (because that was essentially all we could do) in horror as they systematically went after nearly every institution of civil governance culminating in nearly removing the President from office via an entirely trumped-up charge. They had destroyed the Democrats in 1994 because they simply couldn't deliver - the BTU tax went down, health care went down, and finally the Crime Bill failed because it had such laughably wacky ideas as "midnight basketball" as a crime prevention measure (something with is widely approved of today and is completely noncontroversial). As a young LA, it was amazingly dispiriting. Literally nothing we proposed could get passed - we couldn't even get votes. Every bill came to the floor under a closed rule so we couldn't propose amendments and our Senate colleagues faced a full amendment tree on every bill such that unless they had Republican patron they couldn't get votes either. Kennedy fought like hell for things like minimum wage and sometimes could arm-wrestle a procedural vote win out of them but things would just die in the hands of the Hammer in the House. Eventually, my boss got fed up and retired and I went over to the Administration where I thought I might be able to get more accomplished.
Even there, in a Democratic Administration, we faced constant battles as anything remotely beneficial to the public or in keeping with our mission was forcibly outsourced by the Congress or investigated into near-paralysis. The Republican Majority in the House had steadily eroded so that by the end of the Clinton years they had only a 5 seat cushion (223) in the House, but their strong majority in the Senate (55) kept them firmly in control. Then, when Bush took over in the wake of the most disputable election imaginable, the political appointees flooded in and began reversing policies (including policies promulgated by previous Republican administrations) as if they were exercising the overwhelming mandate of the people. Republicans barely kept the House with 221 seats and only held on to the Senate via Cheney's tie breaking vote on the organizing resolution. I left to start a family.
Despite Jeffords' flip, and the razor-thin majority in the House, the Democrats dealt no significant losses to President Bush and his agenda went essentially unchecked, and nominations were processed efficiently and quickly (after all, the people had spoken!). The only arguable exception I can think of right now is that the Administration was unable to push through drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but they actually did put it on reconciliation, they just lost too many Republicans to win. I returned to being in the Minority on the Hill, on the Senate side this time and as staff to an important Committee, and Republicans now had a 51-seat Majority in the Senate and had strengthened in the House to a mighty 229 seats. We fought valiantly to slow them down but were unsuccessful in stopping a one-sided energy bill, escalation of a needless war in Iraq, and continued erosion of the social safety net and de-funding of civil institutions through tax cuts for the well-off. We got occasional fig leaves, and maybe could get a witness or two included in a hearing, but were essentially not a part of the final discussions to put together bills. I dreamed that if only we could get two Senate seat takeaways, then we could finally take the reigns back - after all, poll after poll showed the American people agreed with us on nearly every issue. In 2004 we would surely break through to the public - we had neutralized them on their central issue by nominating a war hero and people were desperate for health care and education reforms. We had moved away from that scary Howard Dean fellow and were now proposing only modest reforms to health care, more tax cuts, and deficit reduction (don't worry, never at the expense of the Pentagon!). How could we lose? Republicans strengthened their majorities to 55 Senators and 232 House Members and I almost lost my job as the now-overwhelming Republican Majority in the Senate increased their allocation of the office space and staff salaries. Now a majority was a faraway dream and the best we could hope for was a few sympathetic Republicans on a few issues that might help us at least expose what they were doing (and we did manage to beat back drilling in Arctic again).
Unexpectedly, public mood did finally begin to sour on the wars and deficits agenda in 2006 and we were able to eek out victories in MT and VA so that we could take a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate (including a dicey vote from Lieberman) and a massive 233-202 Majority in the House. Of course, we'd have to cautious and trim our sails a bit since Bush still was President and we had several skittish votes in the Caucus, but the American People were giving us a shot. We suffered some disappointments but we did about as well as could be expected in the Senate, but at least we were making progress and, though I had to trim my ambitions a bit, I was finally writing provisions that were becoming law. On balance, it was a good Congress, but I dreamed of having big majorities like 55 Senators so that we could really do the stuff we've all been waiting for.
A wave election hit us in 2008 where we not only had overwhelming majorities of 59 seats in the Senate (once Republicans finally got around to letting us seat Franken) and 257 seats in the House (returning us to the same power level as when we ruled the House with inpugnity in 1992-3) but, most importantly, a President who was explicitly elected on an agenda of "change." It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wrench the wheel away from the abyss and really deliver on our promises. It was disheartening when it seemed that Reid was allowing McConnell's disingenuous narrative of "it's always taken 60 votes to get anything done" to take hold, but we were later even saved from that when Specter switched. But it seems we've spent the entire year moving our own goalposts farther away. Things have gotten so bad that in roaming the halls today it feels exactly as if we lost the Majority last night.
The worst is that I can't help but feel like the main emotion people in the caucus are feeling is relief at this turn of events. Now they have a ready excuse for not getting anything done. While I always thought we had the better ideas but the weaker messaging, it feels like somewhere along the line Members internalized a belief that we actually have weaker ideas. They're afraid to actually implement them and face the judgement of the voters. That's the scariest dynamic and what makes me think this will all come crashing down around us in November.
I believe President Clinton provided some crucial insight when he said, "people would rather be with someone who is strong and wrong than weak and right." It's not that people are uninterested in who's right or wrong, it's that people will only follow leaders who seem to actually believe in what they are doing. Democrats have missed this essential fact.
The stimulus bill in the spring showed us what was coming. In the face of a historic economic crisis, Democrats negotiated against themselves at the outset and subsequently yielded to absurd demands from self-described "moderates" to trim the package to a clearly inadequate level. No one made any rational argument about why a lower level was better. It would have been trivial to write "claw-back" provisions if the stimulus turned out to be too much or we could have done a rescission this year to give these moderates their victory, but none of this was on the table. We essentially looked like we didn't know what the right answer was so we just kinda went for what we could get. This formula was repeated in spades in both the Climate and Health Care debacles.
This is my life and I simply can't answer the fundamental question: "what do Democrats stand for?" Voters don't know, and we can't make the case, so they're reacting exactly as you'd expect (just as they did in 1994, 2000, and 2004). We either find the voice to answer that question and exercise the strongest majority and voter mandate we've had since Watergate, or we suffer a bloodbath in November. History shows we're likely to choose the latter.
Although I realize this is far too long to publish, if you do decide to use any of it, please keep my anonymity. Just in case I'm wrong and there is more good to do yet.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
This is from TPM. It's an anonymous staffer talking about the mood in Washington after the Brown win. Quoted verbatim: