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"Watching the Worm Turn"

via Daniel Drezner, I came across this very well-written post by Pejman Yousefzadeh, who I have the impression is a conservative blogger (although who's to really say -- in the blogosphere, we all create our own composite ideologies) Pejmanesque: INSOMNIA FOR POLITICAL GEEKS He stayed up all night to watch the House's scandalous three-hour vote on the Medicare bill, and while watching, started re-reading John Barry's good but way-too-long book, The Ambition and the Power about former House speaker Jim Wright and the meltdown of the Democratic majority in the House in the late 1980s. He finds a particular parallel in the legendary long vote in 1987, in which the Democrats first had to declare the House adjourned and a second "legislative day" begun in order to change a budget bill that was going to lose, and then, like today's Republicans, had to keep a vote open longer than the usual 15 minutes (though not three hours) to persuade some of their own to change their votes. As Yousefzadeh says, "in the process, I watched the worm turn." That is, the arrogance of power that eventually brought down the Democrats has now thoroughly infected the Republicans.

What he doesn't acknowledge was that this exercise of raw power in the 1980s was in the service of some pretty decent policy. The budget bill Wright pushed through created the federal nursing home standards, the COBRA program that allows people to extend their health insurance after leaving a job, and was one of several serious attempts to deal with the Reagan-created deficits. The current Medicare bill, on the other hand, throws almost a third of its benefits at companies in a bid to induce them to do things that would otherwise not be profitable (so much for the free market), provides a ridiculous form of insurance that really does no more than provide two different kinds of discounts but no real security, asks for sacrifices from everyone except pharmaceutical companies, and creates yet another uncontrolled stream of spending which will be much higher in the future, similar to the tax cuts.

But back to the process: You can get away with this behavior for a while, but eventually it will destroy a political party. I wasn't in Washington in 1987, but my political outlook is very much shaped by the end of that episode. In 1994, I had helped to get some very good provisions into the crime bill of that year -- $775 million in new, guaranteed funds for after-school programs, at a time when there was almost no money at any level for after-school. (The change since then is partly to the credit of my colleagues at The After-School Corporation.) We had a good coalition of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and not just moderate New England Republicans either. At the end of this period, I remember getting into an argument with a member of Gephardt's staff in the majority leader's office. If they didn't make a certain change, I said, we would lose our Republican support. "Since when do we give a shit what Republicans think?," was her response. And a week later the crime bill was almost killed, a month later her boss became the minority leader, which he has been ever since. That's the price of that attitude, and every Democrat understands that now.

Unfortunately, the worm turned a long time ago. As I wrote in an earlier post, it's now many years, and many degrees of anti-democratic behavior, past the point that "we're just treating them the way they treated us" is an excuse.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 24, 2003 | Permalink


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