A few days ago

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A few days ago I said that the Democrats have yet to really understand what it means to be or act like a true party of opposition. I mean many things by this, which I hope to explore in the coming weeks and months. But in this case, for what we’re discussing on the site now, I’m referring to how opposition can enable reformism.

Before 1994 and, to a lesser degree, before 2000, Democrats simply weren’t in a position to adopt a genuine reform agenda because they were too implicated in the institutional corruption, the money chase, that is modern Washington. They could want change in some abstract way and they push for it at the margins. But their way of doing business on the Hill and in Washington generally was inseparable from it. It’s how they ran Congress; it was how they raised their money to win elections; their friends (and that means personal and professional friends) who’d already cycled into the lobbying sector made their money from it; and many or most of them expected eventually to do the same.

I know this paints with a broad brush; and in some ways it may paint an ungenerous picture. But it is in most respects accurate.

For some years after 1994 congressional Democrats understandably acted as though they were the natural majority just temporarily displaced. So all those tendencies remained. And, as I noted above, to a lesser degree, they persisted through 2000 because holding the White House created parallel dynamics.

But now none of those are true. And the Democrats’ exclusion not just from power but from the money and lobbying game is far greater than that which the Republicans faced when they were in the minority.

There are two reasons for this: one structural and one political.

First, when the Democrats were in the majority, the two parties roughly split the money. By and large, business gave money to the Dems because they had power and to the Republicans because of their policies. That doesn’t mean there weren’t lots of pro-business Democrats, both in good ways and bad. But that basic paradigm captures the pre-1994 reality, particularly for the last ten to twenty years of the Dems’ majority. Once the Dems lost their majority and seemed destined for a long period out of power, political money swung strongly in the Republicans’ favor.

Second, folks like Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist and others have worked diligently for the last decade to turn K Street into an arm of the Republican machine. That has meant telling trade groups and industry lobbies in no uncertain terms not to hire Democrats. Do so and you’ll be blackballed, is the message.

Placing Republican soldiers (ex-Hill staffers, pols, and operatives) as heads of the major trade organizations not only gives the GOP machine a finer control over K Street — its money-giving, its political influence and its capacity to make trouble — it also creates a ready source of patronage, a source of high-salaried jobs where political talent and loyalists can be placed before they move on to their next task. This is the nuts-and-bolts of what people are talking about when they compare the GOP’s Washington machine to Tammany Hall and the urban political machines of old.

There are quite a few downsides to total exclusion from power in Washington; but there are a few upsides too. And one is the ability to push for genuine reform, to think seriously, creatively and (relatively) unrestrainedly about change (and not just ape it, as the Republicans did in the early ‘90s.) Yet, too many Democrats don’t seem to see clearly enough that on this point politics and principle entirely coincide for them.

Let me finish on this note.

I’ve always been a bit sour and suspicious about that political creature homo goodgovernmentus, and the allure of a politics unconnected to interests or money or patronage. There is such a thing as ‘honest graft’, to use the phrase of the old city machines. Patronage and political machines can and often do help to shape politics in beneficial ways. And to me getting good results in legislation and governance is much more important than the purity of how those results are achieved. At their worst good government or clean government types put the niceties of process and purity over the good legislation. (That’s one reason why reformism has often had a hard time escaping an elitist coloration.)

But American history goes in cycles; the tide of institutional corruption ebbs and flows. And one needn’t indulge in naïve fantasies that the power of money or interests or greed can ever be expelled from politics to see that the pendulum has swung very far in their direction at the moment and that their influence can and must be restrained far more than they presently are.

Just as you can’t prevent barnacles from fixing themselves to the hulls of ships that doesn’t mean that you don’t periodically scrape them off when they become wildly overgrown.

Right now the hull of the ship of state is horribly overgrown with barnacles and all manner of other moneyed and interested crustaceans. And just as it makes no sense to let positive change be stymied by a too fastidious concern with clean political process, we’re now at the point where the dirtiness of politics — or rather the institutional corruption, no, the legalized prostitution that our politics now is — makes progressive legislation in the public interest close to impossible. All the more reason for Democrats to yoke together their values and their political interest and become a genuine party of reform.

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