The Roots Of The Anti-Washington Rage: Beyond The Blame Game

Bipartisanship FAIL. Washington FAIL. Who's to blame? Easy answer: Republicans. It costs them nothing to oppose the Democratic agenda because of the seats they represent (the narrowing of the party's geographical base), the internal pressure from the Tea Party movement (small government conservatives threatening primary challenges) and because President Obama pursued an enormously ambitious, though fairly inclusive, legislative agenda that would trigger Republicans' ideological opposition.

It's true: Republicans threatened to filibuster at least 100 pieces of legislation this session, far more than any other since the procedural tactic was invented. Even when the threat was hollow, dealing with it took time off the clock. Democrats did not have the means, or the stomach, to force Republicans to actually filibuster, realizing too late that their colleagues, even well-meaning colleagues, simply had no rational reason to compromise, except on the most innocuous pieces of legislation. Democrats regained Congress in 2006.

Republicans threatened to invoke cloture on legislation big and small; the majority leader would often try to strike back by pre-empting a post-debate cloture vote -- but maneuvering through legislative procedure slowed down the entire process. Republicans began their filibuster fetish after 2006; they weren't punished for it, because the President was Republican. It became habitual, and Democrats never figured out a way around it. Their majority in the Senate was a party majority, not a political majority; there were -- there are -- too many Democrats who sincerely believe that they'll get punished by not cooperating with Republicans. So the snowball built: Republicans threatened to filibuster; Democrats desperately tried to get Republicans to change their minds; a Democratic president was desperate to find consensus.

Where Democrats are complicit: partisan voting is very common. Democrats voted together 91% of the time in both houses of Congress, higher than the same figure for Republicans. This is a bit misleading, though, because so many of these votes were procedural. In the House, Democrats also encompass a broader and often harder to reconcile ideological range: as Ronald Brownstein noted in National Journal, 30 of the 48 Democrats who represent seats carried by John McCain in 2008 come from districts with lots of blue collar white voters -- what Brownstein calls "low-low" districts -- low minority presence and low levels of education. (Republicans hold 89 of 155 seats with this combination of voters; they make up HALF of the entire GOP caucus. Think Appalachia, the Interior Plains.)

At the other end of the spectrum, Democrats represent more districts (83 of 114) with high concentrations of minorities and high concentrations of people with education -- high-high districts.  In the middle ... are the Democrats:

Viewed from another angle, Democrats divide almost exactly in half between low- and high-education seats, while two-thirds of House Republicans represent low-education seats. Similarly, two-thirds of House Republicans represent low-minority seats, while Democrats divide more closely between high- and low-minority seats (57 percent for the former and 43 percent for the latter).

The more low, low districts the Democrats have to defend, the harder it is for them to pursue policies that high-high districts  (which is where Democrats get their money and ideas from) tend to prioritize -- even though the low-low districts often bear the brunt of the economic duress. We're back to the "What's The Matter With Kansas" question all over again. Polling shows that these voters tend to identify with cultural issues more than economic ones, and when they do think about the economy, they're less likely to blame business for its failings than government for its failings. In general, Democrats represent a more diverse party than Republicans and cannot govern without recognizing that as a fact.

Americans know that the economy is George Bush's legacy, but what those who intend to vote in marginal districts in November 2010 don't agree with is the idea that Democrats are hamstrung by Republican procedural tricks.  (Democrats seem whiny when they complain.)  This is why the party acts like they don't have a president who is more popular than almost any other politician: they're viewing Obama through the lens of their most vulnerable districts. It's also one reason why, very privately, the White House is, in a back-handed way, kind of sort of eager not to have to worry about so many Blue Dogs in the next Congress.