We Could Be In for a Lurch to the Left
A President Obama would not face the same constraints as his Democratic predecessors.
There’s an old saying that politics in America is played between the 40 yard lines. What this means, for those unfamiliar with football, is that we’re a centrist country, never straying very far to the left or the right in elections or national policies. This has been true for decades. It probably won’t be after today’s election.
For the first time since the 1960s, liberal Democrats are dominant. They are all but certain to have a lopsided majority in the House, and either a filibuster-proof Senate or something close to it. If Barack Obama wins the presidency today, they’ll have an ideological ally in the White House.
A sharp lurch to the left and enactment of a liberal agenda, or major parts of it, are all but inevitable. The centrist limits in earlier eras of Democratic control are gone. In the short run, Democrats may be constrained by the weak economy and a large budget deficit. Tax hikes and massive spending programs, except those billed as job creation, may have to be delayed.
But much of their agenda — the “card check” proposal to end secret ballots in union elections, the Fairness Doctrine to stifle conservative talk radio, liberal judicial nominees, trade restrictions, retreat from Iraq, talks with Iran — doesn’t require spending. And after 14 years of Republican control of Congress, the presidency, or both, Democrats are impatient. They want to move quickly.
Democrats had large majorities when Jimmy Carter became president in 1977 (61-38 in the Senate, 292-143 in the House) and when Bill Clinton took office in 1993 (56-44, 258-176). So why are their prospects for legislative success so much better now?
The most significant change is in the ideological makeup of the Democratic majorities. In the Carter and Clinton eras, there were dozens of moderate and conservative Democrats in Congress, a disproportionate number of them committee chairs. Now the Democratic majorities in both houses are composed almost uniformly of liberals. Those few who aren’t, including the tiny but heralded gang of moderates elected to the House in 2006, usually knuckle under on liberal issues. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bosses them around like hired help.
In the past, senior Democrats intervened to prevent a liberal onslaught. Along with Republicans, they stopped President Carter from implementing his plan to pull American troops out of South Korea.
They forced him to accept a cut in the tax rate on capital gains and an increase in defense spending. A bloc of Democrats also helped kill a bill designed to broaden picketing rights and a labor-law reform measure to strengthen labor’s hand in organizing and negotiating with employers, the top priorities of organized labor in the 1970s.
With President Clinton in the White House, the chief goal of liberals was passage of national health-care legislation. Success seemed likely until numerous Democrats balked, including the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
There are no strong-minded liberal renegades such as Moynihan in Congress now, and few Democrats inclined, much less willing, to question liberal dogma. And most committee chairs in the Senate and House are liberals.
Another important change is the enhanced power of liberal interest groups. The influence of organized labor, environmental activists, militant pressure groups like MoveOn.org, left-wing civil libertarians, teachers, trial lawyers and feminists is stronger than it has ever been in Washington. Democrats are leery of bucking them on even the smallest issue.
This was clear in 2005, when the House voted on the innocuous Central America Free Trade Agreement (Cafta). Though the treaty was unlikely to have any impact on American jobs or wages, organized labor opposed it fiercely. Democrats were threatened with union-funded primary opponents if they voted for it. Cafta barely passed, 217-215, with 15 Democrats backing the treaty.
The so-called Cafta 15 survived the 2006 election, but that wasn’t the end of their ordeal. They’re still constantly pilloried at labor gatherings. The attacks have worked, both as a lesson in political harassment for the 15 dissidents and as a warning to other Democrats. Any lingering free-trade sentiment among congressional Democrats has been snuffed out.
An even more telling reflection of labor’s new power in Washington is lockstep Democratic support for card check, which the union movement wants to organize reluctant workers. Card check is overwhelmingly unpopular with the American public. But as a lavish funder of the Democratic Party and the biggest source of manpower in Democratic campaigns, labor expects Democrats to vote for it anyway. And union leaders care a lot more about the issue than the public does.
We saw the results last year. In the House, only two Democrats (out of 230) voted against card check. In the Senate, every Democrat but one voted to halt a Republican filibuster of card check (the filibuster prevailed). That lone Democrat, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, was absent due to illness.
There’s still another change in Washington that shouldn’t be overlooked: a mainstream media that’s become reflexively liberal. It’s true the national press corps has been monopolized by liberals for years. The difference now is that the media’s liberal tendencies are unleashed and permeate reporting on national affairs.
Of course journalists point to the many times they’ve taken on liberal politicians, especially Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and, at times, Sen. Obama. But their criticism is of a special type. They point out political mistakes, clumsy tactics, bad decisions on timing and process failures. They don’t raise doubts about liberalism itself or the liberal agenda. Conservatives aren’t so fortunate. The media challenges their basic principles.
When Republicans hold power, the media routinely becomes part of the political opposition. When Democrats ruled in the past, the press was more evenhanded but rarely hostile. In the new Washington run by liberal Democrats, much of the media is likely to become a liberal claque — or already has.
What might bar liberals from running wild in Washington? A wave of vetoes by President John McCain, should he upset Mr. Obama today, would slow them down. Enough Senate Republicans to continue the filibuster strategy that succeeded in blocking liberal legislation the past two years would also work.
But these are long shots, and so is Democratic self-restraint. Mr. Obama has been quietly letting it be known that, if elected, he doesn’t want to overreach. It’s unclear what he has in mind, if anything. And Mrs. Pelosi said last week that bigger majorities in Congress will cause Democrats to be bipartisan. No one in Washington believed her, and no one should have.
Mr. Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and co-host of “The Beltway Boys” on Fox News Channel.