Why You Can’t Always Define Democrats By Their Votes


Somebody claiming to be Glenn Greenwald (a stretch) left a comment to yesterday’s post on our imperial Democrats that consisted of a series of questions.

How did the Imperialist, Carl Levin. vote on the war in the first place?

How did he vote on the FISA bill?

How did he vote on the Military Commissions Act?

How did Republicans vote on those matters?

The person claiming to be Greenwald didn’t explain the purpose of the questions or even why s/he thought they were relevant but my assumption of what the questions were meant to suggest – that how Levin voted on FISA, the MCA, and the war is somehow related to my characterization of his comments – leads nicely into a post I’d planned to write anyway, if a little later on. Might as well do it now, eh?

I doubt that the real Mr Greenwald is a political junkie of the kind who counts votes and tracks precincts but much of the policy wonkism and commentary from the left blogosphere emanates from such people because they believe – in most cases accurately – that the way politicians vote defines their beliefs and identifies the issues they support, or don’t. Unfortunately, it often isn’t that easy, especially with Democrats. In fact, political junkies immersed in the minutiae of day-to-day legislating can – and do – miss the Big Picture, effectively unable to see the forest for the trees.

If you divest yourself of the details and step back far enough to examine the forest as a whole, you will begin to notice certain patterns repeating themselves over and over again, patterns that define the forest and explain the interrelationships between the individual trees. Let’s pretend the Democratic party is the forest and individual Dem politicians are the trees.

I don’t want to take this metaphor too far. A woodland eco-system is, after all, much more complex than our modern political system. The one thing you need to take away from it is the understanding that the growth and survival imperatives of a single tree very often diverge from the growth pattern of the forest as a whole, but that the divergence is never allowed to endanger the forest’s identity as a cohesive (more or less) entity or impede its overall progress.

Under the Democratic Leadership Council, which has controlled the party’s direction for more than a decade, the Democratic party has been moving inexorably to the right. Led by the DLC and the Blue Dogs, many Democratic positions have become all but indistinguishable from their Republican counterparts, particularly in the areas of foreign policy and trade. There are significant differences in domestic policy, but even there the Democrats have been guilty of abandoning their core values time and time again, using a variety of excuses and rationales, many of which – like their claim that they’ll lose elections if they don’t stay tough on national security – don’t, as Greenwald pointed out so cogently, stand up to even the most superficial scrutiny.

There is some evidence (the campaigns they ran, especially last year’s) that many individual Democrats are more progressive than the party leadership, but the BD/DLC consortium is still firmly in control of the party’s strategies and tactics, and the leadership – from Clinton to Emanuel to Reid to Levin – almost without exception supports the policies advocated by that alliance. So what does the forest do when the trees want to grow one way and the forest wants to grow another way?

Stop them.

I don’t know if the technique was developed here is Massachusetts (wouldn’t surprise me if it was) but I’ve watched it play out for a couple of decades now, and for the last few years I’ve seen it taking hold in the national party. It’s a concept of “party discipline” that allows individual pols to vote in ways that will make their constituencies happy on issues important to them as long as those votes don’t harm or deviate from the overall strategies and goals of the dominant party mechanism. When there are too many votes in favor of something the party leadership is against, they twist just enough arms to ensure that the issue/bill/amendment/whatever will be defeated.

The technique came about, as most political techniques do, out of necessity. There is no Republican party in Mass to all intents and purposes. Technically, we’re a one-party state. If you want to be elected in Mass, you have to register as a Dem or you cut your chances of winning by a significant margin in most places. So, many conservatives have abandoned the state GOP and run as BD Dems, which makes things very confusing. In order to deal with the confusion and prevent the BDs from warping the party as a whole out of all recognition, the Democratic leadership lets individual members vote their constituencies up to the moment they threaten a core issue, at which point it comes down on them like a hammer.

Billy Bulger, legendary Senate President and de facto governor, was a master of this technique. As a head-counter, he had no equal. He always seemed to know exactly how many votes he needed and who he could successfully squeeze to get a turnaround. As a reward, he would promise the squeezee that next time it would be their turn to vote against party interests and be heroes in their home districts. If necessary, he would even agree to co-sponsor one of their bills or make some other deal that would compensate them for a vote they didn’t want to make and were going to get hell from their constituents for.

There’s nothing arcane about this. It’s old-fashioned politics played with finesse, a combination of the fist and the rose, the carrot and the stick. It has worked for centuries and it still does. The Democratic leadership in Congress is proving it.

Fortunately, an example of how this works is ready-to-hand and very recent. This week, in fact.

On Tuesday, Dem Rep Jerry McNerney of California’s 11th District wrote this in his DKos diary after his trip to Iraq:

I came away from this profound experience tremendously moved by the commitment of our brave men and women in uniform as well as the perseverance of the Iraqi people. Although I was proud to lead this delegation and personally meet with our troops, the trip was brief and limited to the locations picked by the military ahead of time.

For a grounded perspective on the war from those who are on the front lines, I urge you to read this critical first-hand account in the New York Times by a group of infantrymen just returning from serving in the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq:

New York Times Op-Ed: “The War as We Saw It”

As the poignant and piercing words of these seven soldiers demonstrates, the unfortunate reality in Iraq is that — while our troops have performed extremely well under very difficult conditions — the Bush Administration’s planning and execution of the war continues to be an abysmal failure.

Our women and men laying their lives on the line in Iraq have done everything we have asked of them. To honor their service, they deserve leaders who respect them enough to ask the tough questions, and — when something isn’t working — not only acknowledge it, but fundamentally change course.

In September, Congress will be participating in perhaps the most critical discussion of this conflict since it began in 2003. My campaign web site has been receiving increasing amounts of email from concerned citizens curious about my stance on the war. So, as we approach this pivotal debate, I want to clearly and unequivocally express to you where I stand on the question of executing a responsible redeployment from Iraq:

I am firmly in favor of withdrawing troops on a timeline that includes both a definite start date and a definite end date (“date certain”) and uses clearly-defined benchmarks. I am not in favor of an “open-ended” timeline for withdrawal, as some members of Congress have proposed recently.

(emphasis in the original)

A day later came this report in the Washington Post:

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) made a round of calls yesterday to freshman Democrats, some of whom recently returned from trips to Iraq and made news with their positive comments on military progress. “I’m not finding any wobbliness on the war — at all,” Emanuel said.

And this statement from McNerney:

But in an interview yesterday, McNerney made clear his views have shifted since returning from Iraq. He said Democrats should be willing to negotiate with the generals in Iraq over just how much more time they might need. And, he said, Democrats should move beyond their confrontational approach, away from tough-minded, partisan withdrawal resolutions, to be more conciliatory with Republicans who might also be looking for a way out of the war.

“We should sit down with Republicans, see what would be acceptable to them to end the war and present it to the president, start negotiating from the beginning,” he said, adding, “I don’t know what the [Democratic] leadership is thinking. Sometimes they’ve done things that are beyond me.”

The insinuation by problematic (to say the least) WaPo reporter Jonathan Weisman that McNerney’s stance changed after his trip to Iraq is pure fantasy. As the direct quote from McNerney’s diary proves (it was cross-posted the same day on his website), his initial position came after his trip to Iraq and his reversal of that position came only 24 hours later after Rahm Emanuel called.

Now, I suppose you can believe if you want to that at some time during that 24-hr period McNerny experienced a Saul On the Road to Tarsus Moment when the scales fell from his eyes and he suddenly realized that his statement of the previous day endangered his re-election, that – afraid of the electoral consequences – he then reversed his position out of fear, and that Emanuel’s call had nothing to do with it as Rahm was simply calling to see how he felt about, you know, things in general.

You can also believe if you want to that your kid’s toys come to life after midnight or that leprechauns live in your hydrangea bushes. That doesn’t mean they actually do.

I prefer the more reality-based answer: that Emanuel made it clear to freshman McNerney that he’d better behave if he wanted support from the leadership, without which nothing he wanted for his district would ever happen. EVER. If Emanuel was following Bulger’s well-worn path, he most likely promised a tit to repay Jerry for his reversal’s tat – support for a bill or a chance to show his independence by voting against the leadership later on.

This is why, if you want to know where the party as a whole is going, you can’t pay too much attention to their individual votes on any single issue. You have to step back and see the how the organism as a whole functions. As soon as you do that, it becomes patently obvious that for over a decade the organism of the Democratic party as a whole and despite changes in leadership over time has consistently made the same decisions again and again. And that – again, no matter who the individual leaders were – those decisions were defined and controlled by a minority slice of the party: The BD/DLC Alliance of conservative, Pub-Lite Dems.

The direction of the party as a whole has nothing whatever to do with fear. It’s a direct expression of the will and beliefs of the conservative minority of Democrats who control the party mechanism and enforce discipline with one of the oldest manipulative techniques in the political book. As long as they remain in charge, it doesn’t matter a rat’s ass which individual pol votes which way on any given issue. The party will always get what its controllers want, and the overall votes will continue to go against the wishes of a majority of Democrats and the party’s own base.

Making the Democrats, as I already said, THE ENEMY.

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8 responses to “Why You Can’t Always Define Democrats By Their Votes

  1. I agree. I’ve wondered why there seems to be about 40 in The House and a few less than 20 in The Senate who can’t seem to vote ‘along party lines’ on the huge issues. It’s not even usually the same rogue congresspeople, but the numbers are usually the same. I’ve noticed the tv explanation is that the Dems just can’t get everyone to vote in line like the Repubs, so it looks like it’s a diverse party of free thinkers… Right; what new Democrat who was voted in against all odds thinks more surrveillace is just peachy, or war funding is what ‘the folks back home’ want?

  2. I mean surveillance… I’m not drunk now.

  3. Exactly. The names change but the numbers remain the same. If the Democratic party was a murderer, that’s the kind of clue Columbo would use to nail them to the wall.

    What I don’t understand is why none of the political junkies who infest the left blogosphere have caught on to this. Just because the Dems don’t do a synchronized voting routine the way the Pubs do, our pundits don’t seem able to put it together that the party mechanism is controlled by a conservative-based leadership. I don’t know how much more obvious it would need to be before they’d acknowledge it.

    It’s a mystery.

    “Surveillance” is a hard word. “Reconnaissance” is even worse. I try to avoid them both.

  4. Death to “recommend” and “committee” and “commitment” while we’re at it.

  5. Pingback: The Latest Democratic Turncoat and Impeachment Follies « Mick Arran

  6. Pingback: The American Street » Blog Archive » Prove Me Wrong, Kids! Prove Me Wrong.

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