The other day, we were watching an episode from the fifth season of the TV series The West Wing. In this episode, the Democrats and Republicans in the Congress and White House have been unable to agree on a new federal budget and have been using special legislation to provide funding to keep the federal government going for a couple more months at a time. The two sides have agreed to a new 2-month extension of funding which includes a 1% cut in spending. The Republicans show up at the White House with a document for the president to sign. It's placed before the president. A staff member starts to go over the basic points of the agreement to refresh the president's memory of the particulars.
When it gets to the point about a 1% cut in spending, the Republican leader says something like, "Oh yeah. We didn't think it was important enough to tell you before we put the document in front of you to sign, but we changed our minds and altered the document to say a 3% spending cut."
The president says, "No, we agreed to 1%."
The Republican says something like, "Funding from previous legislation ends in a couple of hours. If you don't sign the 3% document now, the federal government will shut down tomorrow and we'll all blame you."
The president refuses.
Of course, The West Wing is fiction. One couldn't count on the Democrats saying no to such blackmail in the real world. Certainly, the Democrats didn't say "no" to the budget and deficit ultimatums of 2011. But what struck me was the similarity with real world Democrats. In the episode, they let the Republicans control the narrative on the government shutdown and funding deal. Republicans talked to the media presenting conservative views - while Democrats twiddled their thumbs. When reporters asked the White House about the budget and government shutdown, they'd make comments about spending issues, but wouldn't make an issue about the breaking of an agreement and trying to sneak in a substitute document.
As soon as I saw the bait-and-switch of documents before the president and the ultimatum to sign the switched document or be blamed for a federal shutdown, I thought what a respectable president would do:
1) Excuse himself from the meeting for a moment and tell a staffer to get all the major media to the press room for a major announcement ASAP
2) Go back in the room and spend some more time giving them an opportunity to go back to the 1% agreement.
3) Make a press statement something like this:
"We worked hard to come to a funding agreement. We gave up things we did not want to give up. We don't claim we should never compromise. We did in ways we wish weren't necessary. The two sides came to an agreement including a 1% spending cut. Afterward, the Republicans did not contact the White House to say they were reneging on the agreement. They came into my office and placed a document on my desk without saying it did not reflect our agreement. Only when a staffer mentioned the 1% spending cut did the Republican leader admit the document he placed before me had been changed to specify a 3% spending cut.
"No matter whether you think there should be this change in spending or that change in spending, we cannot have dealings in our government carried out in this manner. When you make an agreement, you have to stick to it. A decent code of behavior should be followed.
"I'm not the one who changed the document at the last minute and told the Republicans to sign it or be blamed for a government shutdown. They must take responsibility for their own acts. If they change their mind at the last minute, they are the ones who caused the consequences. The decent thing to do is to sign the agreement both sides worked out together and prevent the unwanted effects of a government shutdown. If they do that, they can restore their position as lawmakers who are seen as keeping agreements rather than ones who break them."
Neither in the fictional TV world nor the real world do we see much like this from Democrats. It's hard to believe that there's no significant number of elected officials, political staffers and advisers, or officials at the DNC who are capable of seeing the consequences of their behavior. They don't respond quickly or effectively - letting others frame the issue. They let others corner them and demand "accept our terms or else". This behavior makes them look weaker and less capable, while making conservatives look stronger and victorious. By not even trying to expose the blackmail approach used by conservatives, conservatives feel free to continue to use the same tactic.
So What's happening in the real world?
I got an email from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) saying,
Less than 24 hours ago, the Koch Brothers huddled with hundreds of top GOP donors at an “exclusive, principals-only” planning session for 2014.The DLCC itself is telling us there are efforts to prevent the majority of voters from electing the candidates of their choice. That's nothing new. In the 2012 election, Republicans got many of their seats in the House of Representatives using gerrymandering. In North Carolina, stateside, Democratic candidates for the House got 51% of the vote, but because of gerrymandering Democrats only got 4 out of North Carolina's 13 House seats. That's what happened with those people who were allowed to vote. But prior to the election, various Republican-controlled states used selective voter roll purges, laws that added requirements to be able to vote, efforts to intimidate voters, 6 hour long lines at certain voting sites, etc. And that's not to mention the unlimited political spending the rich are now allowed to use to influence our elections. Efforts to undermine our democracy have already been in use with little response from Democrats.
The Kochs’ meeting agenda had only one goal: drowning out your voice in the future elections.
Your urgent support will help Democratic candidates fight back against the Koch Brothers’ billions – please rush $10 or more to the DLCC by tonight’s midnight deadline!
But the DLCC's only response seems to be to try to get 60% of the vote in hopes that the corruption of the elections is not so extreme that 60% is too little to get their candidate elected. And if it is, the next election they'll just tell us we need to work to get 70% - and so on. It's more like giving us busy work so we don't put our efforts into really trying to restore democracy.
And their only "solution" to unlimited political spending by the rich seems to be to ask us to try to outspend billionaires.
Even with a clear majority in the US Senate, Democrats have shied away from serious filibuster reform that would prevent a minority from perpetually blocking legislation. And that seems to be the most convincing explanation for the Democrats' behavior - they want to be blocked. They have to give lip service to what the majority of Americans - and especially most people who vote Democratic - want legislated. But it's convenient for them if they can blame someone else for preventing that legislation from being passed into law.
They can blame Republicans filibustering in the Senate. They can blame a Republican majority in the House - assuming Democrats allow gerrymandering and other mischief to give Republicans a majority there. If the electoral college allows a Republican who didn't win the popular vote to become president - the Democrats can blame him.
If the Democrats actually managed to end gerrymandering, voters might give Democrats control of the White House, the Senate and the House. And then what would be their explanation for not doing what the majority wants?
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Opinion poll after opinion poll have shown a large majority of Americans believe the rich are being let off easy under-paying their fair share of taxes. Today, if a professional works 60 hours a week and gets a $400,000 salary he's in the 39% tax bracket. If a member of the idle rich gets $40 million in capital gains from his great-grandfather's fortune, that income is in a special 20% tax bracket. Democrats talk about raising taxes on those making over $250,000 - including on salary income, but they are generally silent about the tax double standard that has a top tax rate for working at an essential job that is twice as much as for income that has nothing to do with working. (And then working people have to pay a Social Security payroll tax on top of that - and the idle rich don't pay a penny.) It's immoral. It's obscene. It's an unfair preference to the super-rich. Yet, only some Democrats even give lip service to fixing it. And they're happy they can blame House Republicans for keeping it that way.