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The Meaning of "Accountability"

David Sirota has responded to one of the issues I raised in my post about the left cult of Norquist, and significantly clarified matters. I said that I didn't know exactly what he meant by "accountability" for Democrats who voted for CAFTA, although the Norquist analogy, plus words like "serious consequences" and "punishment" for "traitors" and "turncoats" certainly implies a rather dramatic loyalty-enforcement action from the national Democratic party.

In fact, Sirota says, what he had in mind is what happened in New York this weekend: A number of unions held a rally at City Hall to criticize Reps. Ed Towns and Gregory Meeks for voting for CAFTA as well as estate tax repeal (Towns) and the Bankruptcy Bill (Meeks). New York's Working Families Party (which as readers here know I promote at every opportunity) issued a press release criticizing Meeks and Towns, and some of the same groups sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi asking her to remove Meeks and Towns from their committees for using them "to access corporate America?s ATM at the expense of working families." (More info and photos of the rally here.

Now if that's all Sirota had in mind -- in-district pressure from interest groups -- I've got no problem with that, and if I'd known that's what he meant, I would not have written what I did. I might have even gone to that rally if I still lived in NY. After all, I wrote in my original comment that only a member's constituents could hold him or her accountable.

But after all that bluster about "serious consequences" etc. etc., this is really the equivalent of giving your child a long talk about how disappointed we are in you. Maybe Montana is different from New York City, I don't know, but if you're a New York pol, there's usually a City Hall rally protesting something you've done at least once every few years. The letter to Pelosi is symbolic, and the real test will be whether NY Dems and WFP mount any sort of significant challenge to these two, either in the primary or using the WFP line in the general election.

Not that there would be anything new about that, either: Towns has been a liberal target for years, at least since he endorsed Giuliani for mayor, and he beat back two well-funded and New York Times-backed primary challenges in recent years.

Everything in Sirota's earlier argument suggested that he was talking about something much more dramatic, if not a purge, then certainly some sort of systematic national action by the Democratic Party itself to "punish" the "traitors." Evidently not. Needless to say, it would have been nice if he'd clarified this in response to my question, instead of comparing Matt Yglesias and me to neutered barnyard animals responsible for every Democratic loss since Adlai Stevenson.

It's also noteworthy and not totally accidental that the action that Sirota cites focuses only on two African-American members among the 15 who voted for CAFTA. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that they are in safe Democratic seats, which makes them easy targets for in-fighting. It would be much tougher to go after Illinois first-term Rep. Melissa Bean, who narrowly unseated a Republican incumbent last time and faces a very tough reelection race. At the end of the day, the unions are going to be with her because they need her.

The other reason is that there seems to be a growing relationship between corporate America and some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as highlighted in this article from the Hill. While Rep. Harold Ford and Artur Davis are the most outspoken black representatives who take an explicitly centrist/DLC line, there are several others and only 15 of the 42 CBC members are also members of the Progressive Caucus. There have been a number of instances recently of CBC members taking positions that set them apart from the majority of Democrats, on campaign finance reform, estate tax, bankruptcy and other issues. It's too glib to denounce these pols as "turncoats" or "corporate sellouts." I wish I knew more about what's going on there, what those members are thinking and I hope that there's some discussion going on as well as "accountability."

Posted by Mark Schmitt on August 8, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on Aug 20, 2005 3:13:39 PM


The Dems who want to emulate the Republicans are making false analogies. The assumption is that, if it worked for the Republicans, it will work for the Democrats. So, if the GOP plays to its base, so should the Democrats, etc. But there are problems with the analygy. I assumes that the electoral situations for Democrats and Republicans are symmetrical. IMO, they are not.

First, it's not clear to me that the Republicans really do force ideological consistency. They do allow some flexibility so that Republican candidates can move toward the center in blue states. And there are some Republican moderates in Congress who have broken with the White House. And there certainly are differences between religious/social conservatives, such as Gary Bauer, and libertarain/business conservatives. In fact, I have seen suggestions that Bauer is far from enamored with the GOP economic agenda. But they stay together because they hate the Democrats more.

Second, even if it's true about the GOP, that doesn't necessarily mean the same strategy would work for the Democrats. For one thing, the GOP already controls the White House which gives the GOP an organizing principle around which to gather. Since the Democrats don't have that, I'm not sure what the benefit would be of some sort of ideological rigidity, especially since, with the GOP controlling Congress, the Democrats are in no position to pass legislation. For another thing, the GOP starts off with a huge and ideologically homogenous base in the South and Midwest, particularly the religious conservatives. Regardless of what Rove does or does not do, I think it's this base that enforces the ideological consistency of the Republicans. They can make Republican candidates pay, but more importantly, they can also deliver the winning margins to candidates. I don't think the Democrats really have that ability because the blue states are much less blue than the red states are red.

It's not clear to me how, without the weapons that the WH possesses and without the ability to deliver winning margins, how the Democrats (or, in reality, the left) could hold Democratic members accountable. Politicians are going to go where their self-interest lies and, the fact is, since liberals aren't going to vote for Republicans, I don't see what realistic threats the left has to keep Democrats in line.

This is, of course, aside from the fact that sectarian politics like this is offensive to most people and offensive to the free interplay of ideas, which liberals ostensibly value.

Posted by: Marc Schneider | Aug 9, 2005 10:31:49 AM

Yeah, I always thought Stevenson lost because of the neutered barnyard animal vote. Damn shame, too.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Aug 9, 2005 7:00:00 PM