What Will the Democrats Do?

After the initial flurry of good will between the new congressional leaders and the administration the question is how will the Democrats use their new congressional power. Will they go all out and try to defund the Iraq war and even impeach Bush? I doubt it. In fact the early signs are very good that they will play their cards smart and go for a strategy of building a record of solid accomplishment. It is precisely because both parties have acted so badly in Congress and are in bad odor with the American public that it would be such a smart thing to do. I have seen too many Congresses to believe that we will witness a miracle, but we may see an improvement in Congressional behavior for the simple reason that the Democrats road back to power is by building a record to run on in 2008.

Sometimes, if they adopt a reasonably objective attitude, the opposition can see what their opponents must do to succeed very clearly. Here Matthew Continetti, a Republican commentator at the conservative National Review, argues convincingly that the Democrats must show a record of accomplishment to stay in power in Congress and win the presidency.

The great fear of some Democratic strategists is that the congressional party will behave in ways that alienate the independents who brought it to power, thus threatening the presidential party’s chances for victory in 2008. “Will the presidential candidates in 2008 have to run away from the Democratic Congress, or will they be able to work together?” one think tank scholar asked last week. He thought the former more likely. And the congressional party’s power structure and the nature of the incoming Democratic majority lend some support to his claim.

I had gotten the impression in the immediate aftermath of the election that the basic Democratic strategy was to elect centrist Democrats but Continetti’s analysis tells us that, while true in the Senate, it is less so in the House of Representatives:

To govern successfully, the Democratic leadership will have to navigate the majority’s intraparty tensions. Last week the chief tension was said to be between “liberal” and “conservative” Democrats. In truth, in the House, there are fewer conservative Democrats among the incoming freshmen than some have suggested.

Continetti concludes with his view that the Democrats greatest advantage lies in pushing their domestic agenda, much of which I support by the way, and leaving the tough questions of national security and foreign policy in the background.

The most dangerous potential trap for the congressional Democrats involves the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror. Among Republicans and Democrats in Washington there is little doubt that the failure so far to achieve victory in Iraq played a large part in the defeat of the GOP congressional majority. But the Democrats’ ability to influence the conduct of the war is another matter. It is unknown exactly how the public would respond if the Democrats passed a bill calling for retreat from Iraq or cutting off appropriations for the war-or, for that matter, ending the National Security Agency’s warrantless domestic surveillance program or expanding the legal rights accorded to terrorist detainees-but the reaction would probably not be favorable.

There are some signs that the Democratic leadership understands this, and will focus its legislative efforts on economic issues favorable to Democrats while allowing criticisms of the Iraq war to be aired in committee hearings. On election eve, on the Huffington Post, Pelosi outlined an agenda for the 110th Congress. It includes enacting all the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, raising the minimum wage, requiring the government to negotiate drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies, passing another stem cell research bill, “cutting interest rates for student loans in half,” cutting the tax credits and other subsidies that go to the oil companies, and “fighting any attempt to privatize Social Security.” The agenda lacks any call for immediate “redeployment” of troops from Iraq. It says nothing about the Patriot Act or the domestic surveillance program. It ignores the looming nuclear threats posed by North Korea and Iran.

As a voter primarily motivated by wanting to see victory in the War on Terror I will be watching how the Democrats handle these issues. In 2008 I will vote for the party and/or candidates that I believe will prosecute that war most vigorously. That is not necessarily the Republicans, despite the welcoming of the Democratic victory by the likes of al Qaeda and Ahmadinejad. I am not happy with the way Bush has handled the war on Terror and think there must be someone who can do better. Tentatively my first choice is Rudy Guiliani because he seems at this stage to be the candidate with the most ability to get things done. In short, to be effective. I think the frontrunner for the presidency is, more than ever, Hillary Clinton given the election results. Even though I do not trust the Democrats on national security I believe Hillary will not surrender in Iraq. If she sticks with her oft repeated statement that “we have to deal with the Iraq we have, not the Iraq we wish we had,” then she is signaling that she will deal with the problem practically, not ideologically. Both the Bush administration and the left have been guilty of letting ideology obscure the reality in Iraq and Hillary is giving both Bush and her own left wing a sharp rebuke. I like that, and we need more of that attitude from presidential hopefuls. To prevail, I believe, the Democrats must take ownership of the War on Terror more than they have. I don’t entirely agree with Continetti that the Democrats can win by remaining relatively quiet on national security and foreign policy. The next two years literally give them the power to demonstrate they are serious. The terrorists will not back off over the next two years, and while it is not possible to know if they will succeed with a major attack in the US or elsewhere, I think the trend throughout the Western world is toward the realization that radical Islam is serious in its aims and cannot be accommodated or contained like Communism. The Democrats now have the opportunity to step up and show that they can put national security ahead of partisan politics.

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