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Negotiating With the Republicans

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.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 21, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

A very good point, Decembrist, which underscores the continuing need for the DNC to create more shock-troopers to work the states—-not solely for a presidential race, but also to chip away at Republican congressional domination. The idea of a Kerry presidency makes me smile like a ten-year-old at the fair, but if we don’t shore him up with some good folks in Congress, it’s not going to mean as much as it could.

In terms of our “weakest” branch, a recent West Wing episode (almost) highlighted the real-life tensions between a Democrat president & a Republican Senate. There is a huge chance of two appointees in the next four years; I’m happy with moderates but wouldn’t mind a little liberal Court-packin.’ If we ain’t got the votes, we won’t get the jurisprudence our country deserves, even if our junior senator from Massachusetts is in the Oval.

Posted by: gorjus | Jun 21, 2004 11:29:53 AM

I think if Kerry wins, the split might be more extensive than you imply. If Bush loses with his base intact, there is a realignment. The Republican party of today has no soul other than the accumulation of power, and a Kerry win which shows the evangelicals to be a shrinking minority, would end their reason for being Republicans (obviously, policy is not their reason for existing). The demographic trends are even worse -- and social issues such as gay marriage look even worse than that in the long term. Wtih the coming demographics, there has to be a tipping point, and a Kerry victory over a war time President could be it.
Of course, I was hoping for big wins in the 2002 elections...

Posted by: theCoach | Jun 21, 2004 1:38:49 PM

Given the same assumption -- A Kerry Presidency and a Republican Congress -- can lead to the opposite policy: not a Republican V.P. but a V.P. who is good at campaigning against Republicans. Remember Harry Truman running against the 80th Congress? The Democrats can only succeeded by offering a choice and not an echo (as the Taft Republicans used to say). So what they need is a fighting Vice President -- let Kerry be ponderous and Presidential -- and let the VP carry the campaign onto the next by-election.

Posted by: Martin Kenner | Jun 21, 2004 2:41:48 PM

The Goldwater Republicans also hewed to the principle of "a choice, not an echo", and look at what happened to them: yes, they have a lot of power now, but it took them twenty years, a humiliating defeat, two terms' worth of swallowing Nixon-induced bile, and a kamikaze primary challenge to a sitting President before they got it. Kerry is, in any case, not stylistically or philosophically equipped to start that kind of a movement.

Mark, I find your schematic to have intriguing parallels to Bush's first nine months in office, which also sounds a cautionary note about allowing the Republicans, even the decent, moderate Republicans, too much negotiating power while riding too hard on the Democrats.

Posted by: schwa | Jun 21, 2004 8:28:41 PM

Time was, it was considered impossible to split the atom. Today the methods of doing this are well understood, but it is still a Hell of a stunt, requiring exceptional energy and resources, extremely messy, and a good way to get hurt.

Today, it looks as impossible to split the Republican Party as it did in 1920 to split the atom. Perhaps, someday, we will look back and see clearly how it was done; but it will still be a Hell of a stunt, requiring exceptional energy and resources, extremely messy, and a good way to get hurt.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit | Jun 21, 2004 9:36:59 PM

Mark,

I absolutely concur that a Bush loss will harden the widening split in the Republican party, but I wish I saw some sign that the DNC was doing something to prepare for it and rebuild the liberal majority.

Posted by: Melanie | Jun 27, 2004 3:19:55 PM

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