A week in Maryland and DC -- some vacation, some meetings -- and I found almost no opportunity to update the blog. Not much to report from the trip, other than a reminder that, when I lived in DC, I would always notice tourists dragging their drooping kids around and think, "Don't people realize that little kids aren't built to handle this climate?" And then, there I am, in my shorts and sandals, tugging a three-year-old across the Mall. Still, she was pretty firm that if she was in Washington, she wanted to see the White House and the Capitol, not the Zoo, and was pretty excited about the whole thing. Then I went off to my meetings and left my wife to keep her busy for another day and a half, which they did.
In the course of three days in DC, I had an interesting conversation with someone who I will just identify as one of the most savvy and successful of liberal policy advocates. He laid out the following scenario for a Kerry administration, regardless of whether Democrats win back the Senate by a tiny margin or not: Kerry comes in with a head of steam, has some great policy ideas, but can't get anything passed. Around the middle of the year, in the face of futility, he has to start negotiating with the Republicans.
This goes back to my first comments on the transition, but I think that is a terrible, highly undesirable outcome. It is more or less what one would expect, based on the experience of the Clinton Administration and, conversely, the first Bush administration. But it is a disaster. It means that Kerry, probably with his job approval rating sinking, will find himself trying to negotiate with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. This will not be like Reagan negotiating with Tip O'Neill in the 1980s, a respectful conflict of viewpoints. Frist not only will be scheming to run against Kerry in 2008, he not only knows no boundaries to the primacy of political power, but he also has shown not even an inkling of regard for the country or its long-term well-being. Nothing good will come of that.
And this prediction reinforces my belief that Kerry's only hope for success, even if he is blessed with a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, is to begin very early on working with the Republicans that he can work with: as I put it in that previous post, "moderate and not-so-moderate Republicans, from Snowe and Chafee to McCain and Hagel in the Senate, and their handful of counterparts in the House." One key to political power, I believe, is understanding in advance when you will have to negotiate and when you can exercise power. And when you know you have to negotiate -- as Kerry will have to -- you want to decide for yourself when you negotiate and with whom you negotiate. Kerry's choice, then, is likely to be this: Do I negotiate with Snowe and Voinovich in January, or with Frist and DeLay, from a position of weakness, in September? That's not a hard choice.
I'm quite hopeful that Kerry understands this, and that one advantage of his Senate career is that he knows these Republicans and has a history of working well with them. But then the question becomes, will the Democrats let him cut this deal? There will be the partisan triumphalism: "We won. Why do we have to deal with those assholes?" There will be specific differences on issues, because the Republicans are likely to put a much higher priority on long-term deficit reduction, which will bring to a boil the long-simmering conflict over "Rubinomics." But, Ashcroft's Office of Legal Counsel is wrong: President's don't get to operate unilaterally. And Kerry will have an easier time negotiating with people like Senators Snowe and Voinovich, who are decent and well-meaning and who do not set out to destroy government, than Clinton had negoiating with the nominal Democrats of his day, such as Senator Shelby of Alabama.
In short, President Kerry will only be able to govern if he is able to split the Republican Party. The split has already opened thanks to the White House's ideology of total control and the embarassment and chaos it has caused; Bush's defeat will open it much wider, freeing Republican moderates to acknowledge the insanity of the past three and a half years. But Kerry must complete the split, just as Reagan completed the split of the Democratic Party, and we must allow/encourage him to do it. Otherwise, we're doomed to watch him negotiate the terms of surrender of his presidency to a soulless cat-murderer.