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Part 2: Going the Distance
The Republican strategy for the next two years is deadly simple: Don't let the Democrats accomplish anything.
The problem the Republicans have is that what the Democrats want to accomplish is, in fact, insanely popular with America. Let's take a look at a few of the Six for '06 proposals again:
1. Increase the minimum wage. According to the Pew Research Center, 83% of Americans believe that the minimum wage should be raised.
2. Achieve energy independence. According to Foreign Affairs, fully 90% of Americans believe that the lack of energy independence jeopardizes national security. Polls conducted last June also show that 91% of Americans believe we're facing an energy crisis, while 78% support increasing the use of ethanol.
3. Make health care more affordable. According to ABCNews, over 80% of Americans are dissatisfied with the costs of healthcare.
Spotting the pattern? A poll conducted by Newsweek immediately after the election showed massive, overwhelming support for every single item on the Democrats' agenda. None of the initiatives had less than 75% support, and many of them are actually supported by more than 90% of Americans.
Thus, the Republican dilemma: If you let the Democrats accomplish the incredibly popular things they want to accomplish, people are probably going to like them even more than they do now. So you've got to stop them. But you can't stop them by openly opposing the incredibly popular things they want to do because, after all, they are incredibly popular.
The Republican Strategy
The Republican strategy, therefore, can't be a substantive debate on the issues. Instead, they will focus on controlling perception: In practical terms, they will do everything they can to block the Democrats' immensely popular goals. And then they'll try to spin their obstructionist tactics as a Democratic failure.
The story they're going to try to tell is simple: The Democrats are ineffective failures. With them in power, it was just business-as-usual in Washington.
There will be three major elements to their strategy:
First, they'll try to stop the Democrats' policy initiatives from making the public radar. This won't last forever, but they'll flood the mainstream media with the claim that "Democrats don't have any ideas". The goal here is to stop the general public from being left with any kind of lasting impression that the Democrats actually DO stand for something.
Second, they'll publicly call for bipartisanship. They'll avoid doing anything that's actually meaningfully bipartisan, but they'll definitely get in front of as many video cameras as they possibly can and talk about how important bipartisanship is. They'll simultaneously flood the lame-duck Congress with dead-on-arrival legislation (such as the John Bolton's nomination or Bush's attempt to legalize his wiretaps after the fact), knowing that the Democrats will have no choice but to filibuster it. The goal here is to leave a perception that the Republicans tried to help the Democrats get things done. If they can establish the perception that they're "reaching out to the other party", even while they're actively sabotaging every Democratic effort to accomplish something, then the resulting failure will be laid on the Democrats.
Finally, they'll have to actually stop the legislation from passing. They have several ways of accomplishing this, which we'll come back and touch on in a moment.
The Democratic Strategy
In order to understand how the Democrats can successfully counter the Republican strategy, one thing needs to be understood: If the Republicans don't want a piece of legislation passed into law, they can stop it from being passed into law. The Democrats don't have a veto-proof majority in the Senate, so President Bush can veto absolutely anything he wants to and the Democrats can't do anything about it.
So, if this was a sporting event where points were scored based on how much legislation you actually got passed into law, the Democrats would lose. Fortunately, that isn't the case. The Democrats can beat the Republicans in two ways:
1. They can actually get their legislation passed. By doing so, they'll not only be delivering what the American people want, they'll also be demonstrating that they're capable of effective and efficient governance. They'll have demonstrated that they'll keep their promises and do exactly what they were elected to do, creating a strong argument that they should be returned to power in 2008.
2. They can force President Bush to veto their legislation. By forcing Bush to veto positive legislation that the majority of Americans want, they'll demonstrate that the Republicans are out of touch with the nation and create a strong argument that they should be returned to power in 2008.
This is, really, just a variation on Clinton's highly effective governing strategy from '95 through the end of his presidency: Present yourselves as the party trying to get things done. Either you accomplish those things and give yourself a strong platform and identity. Or the other guy chooses to block your efforts, painting him as an uncivil obstructionist who's putting party politics above the best interests of the American people.
In order to be successful, the Democrats need to keep their eye on the ball: If, in the first hundred hours of the new Congress, they can use their new majorities in the House and Senate to rapidly and smoothly pass the Six for '06 proposals, then they'll have delivered a crushing blow to the Republicans. From that point forward, they would essentially be in control of the public debate and public perception for the next two years.
Avoiding Congressional Gridlock
The biggest obstacle for the Democrats lies not in President Bush's veto, but in a Senate filibuster.
The reason for this is public perception: A Presidential veto is not only clear-cut, it's a significant event. It makes newspaper headlines (particularly given how rarely Bush has used his veto power). If the Democratic Congress sends a bill to the White House allowing Medicare to negotiate for better drug prices, for example, and Bush vetoes it, the blame for that bill failing to pass will rest firmly on Bush's shoulders.
If a bill simply gets bogged down in Congress, on the other hand, that's a muddier affair. It becomes a news story about procedural jargon and committee proceedings. It affords the Republicans a chance to paint the Democratic congress as ineffectual and incapable.
The Democrats, of course, have control of both the House and the Senate. In the House, the Democratic leadership is not going to have any problems: Those bills are going to be voted on and they're going to be passed. And if a vote is ever held in the Senate, the Democrats will win there, too. So, if the Republicans are going to be successful, they're going to have to stop the Democratic Six for '06 from ever coming to a vote on the Senate floor. And, to do that, they're going to employ filibusters.
Here's the trick, though: Senate Republicans shot themselves in the foot when they threatened to use the "nuclear option" to eliminate the filibuster for judicial appointments last year. The Democrats will need to handle this carefully, but if they can frame the debate as: "You guys wanted to get rid of the filibuster, and now you're using it to block legislation that the American people want!" Then they can simultaneously paint them as being both hypocritical and out of touch with America.
The Republicans, on the other hand, will be trying to paint the Democrats as hypocritical for criticizing their use of filibusters: "You said that filibusters were an important part of governance, and now you're criticizing us for using them!"
In order to avoid the Republican trap, the Democrats have to stay on message: The Republicans can't actually justify their filibusters (they'd have to try to characterize things like minimum wage increases and the 9/11 Commission Report recommendations as "too extreme"), so if the Democrats can keep the debate on the ISSUES, they'll win. If they allow the debate to become about the use of filibusters, then they'll be giving the Republicans a chance to win the battle of perception.
This, however, is why getting control of the Senate was such a huge win for the Democrats: If the Republicans had still been in control of the Senate, it would have been much easier for them to make sure that the Six for '06 agenda disappear in inter-chamber bickering. In the process, the Democrats would have been painted as partisan politicians too interested in scoring political points to govern effectively. The legislation would never have gotten out of Congress and, eventually, it would have dropped out of public consciousnss altogether. 2008 would role around and the Democrats would have been "in power" for two years with nothing to show for it, and the Republican spin machine would eat them alive.
By winning the Senate, the Democrats have pushed the Republicans back on their heels. The only things the Republicans can do is filibuster and veto: Those are narrow options, and the Democrats can use that narrowness to demonstrate Republican obstinancy in the face of the people's will.