I’ve heard people say that it’s not fair to criticize the Democrats for botching health care reform because the Democrats never truly had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Sure, they have 60 votes in principle, the argument goes, but with Lieberman, Nelson, Landrieu, and Bayh counted as four of those votes, it’s not really a solid 60.
Perhaps. But then how was George Bush so effective in passing legislation during his presidency when he never had more than 55 Republicans in the Senate? In fact, during Bush’s most effective years, from 2001 to 2005, the GOP had a grand total of 50, and then 51, Senators. The slimmest margin possible.
And look at what George Bush was able to accomplish in the Congress with fewer Senators than the Democrats have today:
- John Ashcroft nomination
- Iraq war resolution
- Repeated Iraq funding resolutions
- 2001 & 2003 tax cuts
- Patriot Act
- John Roberts
- Medicare Part D
I’m sure some people will argue that Bush had September 11, and used it to pass lots of laws. Yes. But September 11 had nothing to do with the Ashcroft nomination, the 2001 tax cuts, with the Alito and Roberts nominations, nor with Medicare Part D. And in each case, Democrats rolled over and gave the Republicans the votes they needed to ensure there would be no effective filibuster. (And let’s not forget, Obama had the economic meltdown and the recent memory of the failed Bush presidency to use as his rallying cry to smother opposition, and he didn’t.)
So what’s the difference? Why with 60 votes are Democrats so ineffective, but with 50 votes Republicans excel?
What the GOP lacked in numbers, they made up for in backbone, cunning and leadership. Say what you will about George Bush, he wasn’t afraid of a fight. If anything, the Bush administration, and the Republicans in Congress, seemed to relish taking on Democrats, and seeing just how far they could get Democratic members of Congress to cave on their promises and their principles. Hell, even Senator Barack Obama, who once famously promised to lead a filibuster against the FISA domestic eavesdropping bill, suddenly changed his mind and actually voted for the legislation. Such is the power of a president and a congressional leadership with balls and smarts.
How did they do it? Bush was willing to use his bully pulpit to create an environment in which the opposition party feared taking him on, feared challenging his agenda, lest they be seen as unpatriotic and extreme. By going public, early and often, with his beliefs, Bush was able to fracture the Democratic opposition (and any potential dissent in his own party) and forestall any effort to mount a filibuster against the most important items in his agenda.
It’s not about the votes, people. It’s about leadership. The current occupant of the White House doesn’t like to fight, and the leadership in Congress has never been as good at their jobs, at marshaling their own party, as the Republicans were when they were in the majority. The President is supposed to rally the country, effectively putting pressure on opposition members of Congress to sit down and shut up. And the congressional leadership is supposed to rally its members to hold the line, and get the 51 votes necessary for passing legislation in a climate where the minority is too afraid to use the filibuster. When you have a President who is constitutionally, or intellectually, unable to stand for anything, and a congressional leadership that, rather than disciplining its own members and forging ahead with its own agenda, cedes legislative authority to a president who refuses to lead, you have a recipe for exactly what happened last night. Weakness, chaos, and failure.
We lost real health care reform not because we don’t have a “real” filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. We lost health care reform because we don’t have a real leader anywhere in our party. It’s not going to get better if we elect more Democrats to the Senate and it’s not going to play out any differently should we try to revisit this issue in the future.
And one final point. What do you think is going to happen if, during the House-Senate conference, a combined bill is returned to the Senate that even vaguely improves upon the garbage they’re currently debating? Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu and Evan Bayh will threaten the same filibuster. We’re not getting anything better than the crap they just came up with last night. It’s over. The next three years are going to be about mediocrity, broken promises, and striving for second best. That’s not the America I grew up in. And it’s not what I voted for, or was promised.