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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

When Democrats Unite

Despite the enduring popularity of the “Democrats In Disarray” meme in certain precincts of the chattering classes, the truth is that the enactment of health reform reflected a degree of Democratic unity, resolution, and yes, accomplishment that is becoming a bit hard to ignore. Ron Brownstein’s latest National Journal column gets it straight:

After Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown’s victory in January’s Senate special election, Democrats appeared shaken to the point of panic. But, from President Obama on down, the party has rapidly regrouped–enacting health care reform, virtually daring Senate Republicans to filibuster tougher regulation of financial institutions, and challenging the GOP with last weekend’s White House announcement of recess appointments for 15 nominees stalled in the Senate. Pundits may be pelting the party with predictions of doom in November, but Democrats have apparently decided that the best defense against a resolute Republican opposition is a good offense.

More importantly, improved Democratic morale has made it easier to get some perspective on the last turbulent year, when Democratic defections in Congress were largely limited to House Members from districts that Barack Obama lost in 2008 (defections that shouldn’t be that surprising).

The governing core of the party’s House majority has been members elected from districts that Obama carried in 2008. House Democrats who represent such districts voted 199-8 for final approval of the Senate health care bill last month. Last year, they voted 201-1 for Obama’s stimulus plan, 194-1 for federal tobacco regulation, 191-8 for financial reform, and 189-15 for climate-change legislation. The Democrats elected in districts that preferred Republican presidential nominee John McCain haven’t supported Obama nearly as reliably, but Pelosi has corralled enough of them each time to pass the president’s priorities.
In the Senate, the governing core is the 33 Democratic senators elected from the 18 “blue wall” states that have supported the party’s presidential nominees in at least the past five elections. In 2009, these senators collectively recorded a stunning 97 percent party unity score on the index calculated by Congressional Quarterly. Around that axis, Democratic leaders have assembled shifting coalitions of Democrats from states that are more closely divided. On the most-momentous votes — the stimulus plan and the initial health care reform package — every Senate Democrat from either camp backed Obama.

Brownstein concludes that for all the strom and stress of the last year, Obama and congressional Democrats have put together the most impressive record of accomplishment by any Democratic administration since Lyndon Johnson’s, and a degree of party unity that rivals that of Republicans in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Interestingly enough, a considerable proportion of Democratic criticism of Obama has been from those arguing that he is too committed to bipartisanship in the face of ever-more-radical Republican opposition to his entire agenda. This was not a criticism made very often of George W. Bush and his political guru Karl Rove.
The problem for Democrats this November is not so much disunity as it is distraction and disinterest among voters who don’t often show up for midterm elections and who in this difficult period of American history understandably have other fish to fry. That’s why upcoming fights like financial reform and a Supreme Court nomination could be especially important: not only adding to this administrations legacy, but providing relatively unmotivated Democratic and swing voters with a graphic illustration of what could happen to the country if the GOP returns to power.

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