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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Democrats in Disarray

Dem1In a recent op-ed, my colleague Jonathan Turley (law, GW) points out that the Democratic leadership has been wildly inconsistent and ineffective on key issues:

As the White House comes closer to a nomination, the Democratic Senate appears in near-total disarray. Conflicting statements from Democratic leaders appear to be ferocious one day and fawning the next. What is clear is that there is a dangerous and growing disconnect between Democratic leaders and their base. . . .

Consider the filibuster proposals. The Democratic senators initially laid out a clear, principled position that they could not allow a vote on at least four of the pending appellate judges. While some of us did not agree with that position, we could at least understand it. Then the Democratic senators suggested that they would agree to allow the Republicans to have up-or-down votes on some of these candidates if the GOP agreed to bar some others. As part of this deal, they left it up to the Republicans to pick who would be confirmed and who would be rejected.

The Republicans rightfully called foul about such a crude head count. It was a position entirely divorced from principle. Then came the filibuster deal itself. Seven Democratic senators agreed to a proposal that protected the right of the filibuster while allowing some candidates to be confirmed. The result was a disaster for the Democrats. To this day, most people cannot figure out what the Democrats got from the deal. The four candidates that the Democrats had vowed to filibuster as the previously deemed "worst of the worst" were allowed to be confirmed. . . .

Senator Reid's announcement that he would support conservative stalwart Antonin Scalia for chief justice continues the confusion. . . .

After vehemently opposing Mr. Gonzales only recently for a political appointment, Mr. Reid was saying that he could support him for a lifetime appointment where he would interpret the law for the nation. Mr. Reid's position on Mr. Gonzales has led to a further erosion of credibility for the Democrats. For Democratic stalwarts, Mr. Gonzales appeared marginally pro-life but he also appeared strongly pro-torture. . . .

For now, the coming battle may be best described by that English bard as "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

For some time, the Democrats have been in quite a disarray. The Republicans control all branches of government and are about to get even more power when they appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court. The Democrats are still reeling.

The problem goes beyond these recent events. It goes to the basic strategy of the Democrats. What strategy you ask? Exactly . . . there really is no coherent strategy or plan.

The Democrats lack clear messages or unity. They cannot effectively communicate their ideas to many Americans despite the fact that many of their policies would benefit a large majority of Americans.

What needs to be done, I think, is for the Democrats to figure out what their core commitments are, articulate them clearly, and stick by them. Democrats need to unite behind these basic commitments and hold the line. They need to sell them to the American people . . . which is something they are not doing right now. Instead, the Democrats' only hope seems to be that the Republicans screw up or splinter apart.  The Democrats seem to be in such utter disarray that I really wonder whether there is much hope for the future of the party.

Posted by Daniel Solove on July 16, 2005 at 01:06 PM in Current Affairs, Daniel Solove, Law and Politics | Permalink


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You guys really think the war on Iraq didn't involve lies??? How can you possibly hold that belief and still be literate?

"It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism[.]" George W. Bush, on Iraq., October 7, 2002.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jul 27, 2005 1:26:56 PM

"What needs to be done, I think, is for the Democrats to figure out what their core commitments are, articulate them clearly, and stick by them. Democrats need to unite behind these basic commitments and hold the line."

But why should the party leadership do that when you can't even suggest what they should discard? Judging by the polls and election results, which seems to be all the post-Clinton party stands for, these come to mind.

1. End all support for Supreme Court-legalized abortion and tell the liberal Court Justices to quit seeing what isn't in the Constitution. Remember that as recently as the late 1960s, even liberals were calling abortion a great evil. And as someone who was at Yale Law noted, in the fall of 1972, no one in his law class could come up with a Constitutional rationale for abortion legalization. "Privacy" can be used to justify virtually anything. And many of the argument for abortion sound disturbingly like those once used to rationalize slavery.

2. Denounce the Kelo decision and the liberal and moderate justices who foisted it upon us. Conservatives denounce 'their' justices when they don't like a decision. Why are the liberal rank and file such wimps?

3. Admit that the Second Amendment should be interpreted as broadly as the free speech provisions of the First Amendment. Both should be limited only by a 'clear and present danger.' For speech that means crying "Fire" in a crowded theater. For guns that means a felony conviction. NYC and DC should allow concealed carry for all law-abiding citizens not just a politically well-connected few.

4. Abandon all attempts to demonize Bush and the Republican party. It just makes you look looney. Admit that the Iraq war was well-intention, did not involve lies, wasn't about oil, and stand a good chance of bringing democracy to the Arab Middle East. Bush is trying to do for the Middle East what Reagan did for Eastern Europe, and his most vocal critics are many of the same people who attacked Reagan twenty years ago.

Finally, don't forget the "Roe effect." In a democracy, a group that aborts its own children will inevitably lose to a group that doesn't.

--Mike Perry, Seattle, Untangling Tolkien

Posted by: Mike Perry | Jul 26, 2005 11:10:26 PM

Republicans dominate this country because beneath their ideological platform lies, to some degree, a unifying ideology of free markets and spreading democracy.

As such, I think that many of the problems our current country faces stems from our attempt to whole-heartedly embrace the free market system.

Until the democrats attach onto another ideological platform (like they did with FDR and Keynsian economics), I think the Democrats will continue to wallow in mediocrity.

One plausible unifying theory might be had in a behavioral approach to economics, actually designing programs that conform with actual human behavior. Hopefully over the next 20 years or so, democratic policy-makers will begin to see the utlity of such a theory and implement them into their programs.

Posted by: Aaron Wright | Jul 17, 2005 8:45:39 PM

I think my core values would be:

1) keeping business in check, but doing so in a way that is consistent with free-market principals (i.e., no more bailouts of companies like Chrysler ... but enforcement of antitrust, consumer protection, rigorous prosecution of companies like ChoicePoint or less ethical pharmaceutical companies)

2) supporting safety nets like social security and the Pension Benefits Guaranty Company

3) some form of health insurance for all

4) compromising on some social issues, such as increasingly stringent standards for violence/sex in the media, increased promotion of certain limits on abortion, etc.

5) protection of the environment

6) rigorous prosecution of war on terror

I think the real intellectual bonanza for liberals will happen when they fully embrace the free market as the primary engine for economic change. Currently, our economic policy-making is a smorgoesboard of confusion. Sometimes we're for free-trade, sometimes we're against it. Sometimes we embrace free-market rhetoric, sometimes we talk like socialists. But we have to exploit the intellectual opening that is left by the Republicans, who are more the party of entrenched big business than free-market principles.

Of course, the problem with all of this is that every Dem has different core values. It's good, though, to get people having these kind of conversations. Of course, I would much rather have the Democratic leadership make these kind of choices, because they haven't done anything of the sort yet, but realistically we must expect that those choices will probably be made by the next Democratic President.

Posted by: Jeff V. | Jul 17, 2005 11:05:46 AM

Walter Olson's WSJ op-ed shows that Senator Reid isn't being as incoherent as Professor Turley accuses him of being: Reid's just in the pocket of the trial lawyers. The question then becomes why the Democrats consider protecting the litigation lobby at the expense of its other constituencies its core value.

Posted by: Ted | Jul 17, 2005 8:45:22 AM

The only way the Democrats can grow and re-gain dominance is by articlating a Neo-Progressive Platform that is palatable to those remaining younger Democrats.

I think in this conservative political climate, they should take notice of Teddy Roosevelt's principals:
(1) keeping business in check (enforcing anti-trust laws, and/or scaling back copyright protections)
(2) minimal environmental protections
(3) fiscal conservativism

These three tenants should be folded and trumped as what the Democrats vision for America.

Posted by: Aaron Wright | Jul 17, 2005 8:35:31 AM

"What needs to be done, I think, is for the Democrats to figure out what their core commitments are, articulate them clearly, and stick by them. "

Kevin Drum at the washingtonmonthly.com had a similar question: What's a good wedge issue for democrats. And his answer was "privacy."

I think, on the other hand, the democrats should be out there loudly beating the drum and having victory tours about defeating the attempted social security privatization. It's certainly part of their core.

Posted by: actus | Jul 16, 2005 9:51:19 PM

Good riddance to Democrats is all I can say...

Posted by: Dan | Jul 16, 2005 6:57:22 PM


I couldn't agree more with you on the importance of clearly saying what the Democratic party stands for and then fighting for it. When you look at all of the mistakes that the Reps have made over the past few years -- no WMD in Iraq, promoting a hugely unpopular Social Security privatization plan, etc. etc. -- there really should be an opening for the Dems to hit back in the 2006 election. But I worry, like you, that without a clear message, voters will still stick with the Republicans despite their warts if Dems can't convince them why they are better.

I guess I just think that Dems are disorganized on the judicial nomination issue because there is no position that the Dems can take that will really win huge points with the voters. In my opinion, the leadership of the Democratic party has realized this and basically loosened the reigns on individual Democratic politicians, letting individuals take positions that they feel will be helpful to them politically. People in liberal states are thus free to be as intransigent as the want, while people in conservative states are free to cooperate with Bush to their heart's content. (this is happening on the Republican side, too ... witness Specter, who is really worried about shoring up support from moderates, opining that O'Connor would be a great Supreme Court Justice. This is a transparently political statement on Specter's part; he must know that no president would ever nominate someone that they thought would only serve for one or two years, especially when they face the threat of a somewhat more hostile Congress in two years).

Law professors live and work in a world that is obsessed with legal issues. I also get the impression that most law profs' non-legal friends are academics or, at least, highly educated people. These types of people care about judical issues, but most of the country does not. Remember, only 25% of Americans have college degrees. Do you really think that someone that doesn't go to college really cares about judicial issues (except maybe pro-lifers, who wouldn't be rallied by anything the Dems could say or do with respect to judicial nominations anyway). Read any good public opinion poll, and you will find that, when people worry about political issues, they worry about Iraq, terrorism, the economy, and "gas prices." If you tell people that they have to go to war, that their parents won't get as much money from social security, or that they will have to pay $2.50 for gas, they will get pissed off and force political change. However, if you tell people that a new Supreme Court nominee has not studied enough Critical Race Theory, they will laugh at you. And after more than a decade of calling every Republican nominee "extremist," Dems have effectively cried wolf way too many times; tactics such as those used by Kennedy against Bork would ring hollow in the ears of most Americans today.

Remember the debate over going to war with Iraq in 2003 or so? That was in example in which real, everyday Americans mobolized on both sides of an issue that they really cared about. Remember how that felt? By contrast, doesn't the "debate" over a Supreme Court nomination feel like something that is really going on mainly in DC and in pockets of well-educated political elites? That's what it feels like to me. Sorry, I just can't see the Dems as a national party really benefiting from any this nomination at all politically by making any type of concerted effort.

Posted by: Jeff V. | Jul 16, 2005 6:33:51 PM

Jeff V.,

I agree that greater Democratic unity might not have much effect on whom Bush appoints, but the Democratic message isn't very coherent. I disagree that nobody really cares about judicial appointments. Maybe not lower court judges, but people do care about the Supreme Court. The value of unity is not in achieving a victory in the appointment process -- I doubt that will happen -- but in establishing a message that people can understand and rally behind.

Compare the Democrats now out of power to the Republicans when they weren't in power. The big problem that makes me worry is the failure of the Democrats to figure out what their core commitments are and then articulate them in a way that resonates with the American people, especially swing voters. The Democrats have had some success in pointing out where the Republicans have gone awry, but that's not enough. Many people don't like to choose between the lesser of two evils but to align themselves with a party that really stands for their beliefs. It is fine to play defense against the Republicans -- indeed, a party out of power has to do this -- but the Democrats also need to build up a real identity that can be communicated clearly and persuasively. It is this latter project that isn't being done. In other words, the Democrats are being too reactionary and are still not doing enough to build a solid foundation for the future.


Posted by: Daniel Solove | Jul 16, 2005 3:16:06 PM

Aw, chill out.

Democrats look weak and disorganized on this issue because they simply do not have the votes to stop a Bush appointment (assuming they don't fillibuster) and, without those votes, would have to rely on a popular outcry against a Bush pick. Since 90% of actual voters do not care about the judiciary at all (law professors keep forgetting this vital fact!), this is impossible to do. Interest groups and politicians will try to mobolize people, but it won't work. No one cares enough!

Does it really matter that the Dems are disorganized on this issue? I don't think so. Even with greater unity, Dems' actions would not have a great effect on who Bush nominates. Sure, it looks bad that we are so disorganized, but look at how badly splintered the Republican party is over social security reform. They are that splintered because they realize that the Dems have mobolized public opinion against their ideas and therefore have more clout on this issue. That is the key: mobolize public opinion, and a minority party can exercise power. And, to repeat: the public DOES NOT CARE about judical crap.

If you would like to make the general point that the Reps have an organizational advantage over the Dems, then I think most people will agree with you. And I think most people agree with you that the Dems need to pick their core values and forcefully make the case for them. But don't sound like it's the end of the world. The Dems will continue to be an effective political party.

Posted by: Jeff V. | Jul 16, 2005 2:39:40 PM

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