Surveying the scene today, one thing that occurs to me is that President Bush is remaking the government into something that is looking more and more like a parliamentary democracy. I don't mean in every specific, of course; the key feature of the Bush presidency is an extremely powerful executive that to a great degree coopts and controls his own congressional majorities.
But the similarities are important and worth understanding. The key elements are extremely tight party discipline (something political scientists have lamented the absence of for years) and a sharp diminishment of rivalries between the branches of government which used to cut against unified party control.
Party discipline is simple enough. President Bush's first term was replete with examples. And an instructive comparison is how much President Bush was able to accomplish with thin majorities in 2001-02 compared to what President Clinton was able to do with much more substantial majorities in 1993-94.
Today I'm struck by this most recent example with Arlen Specter.
Fresh from his successful senate reelection campaign, Specter (heir apparent to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee) suggested he'd hold the line against anti-Roe v. Wade judges President Bush might appoint.
Then no more than a day later he beat a hasty and shamefaced retreat.
âContrary to press accounts, I did not warn the President about anything and was very respectful of his Constitutional authority on the appointment of federal judges.
âAs the record shows, I have supported every one of President Bushâs nominees in the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor. I have never and would never apply any litmus test on the abortion issue and, as the record shows, I have voted to confirm Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice OâConnor, and Justice Kennedy and led the fight to confirm Justice Thomas.
âI have already sponsored a protocol calling for a Judiciary Committee hearing within thirty days of a nomination, a vote out of Committee thirty days later, and floor action thirty days after that. I am committed to such prompt action by the Committee on all of President Bushâs nominees.
âIn light of the repeated filibusters by the Democrats in the last Senate session, I am concerned about a potential repetition of such filibusters. I expect to work well with President Bush in the judicial confirmation process in the years ahead.â
I assume the word came down from the White House to Sen. Specter that he simply wouldn't be Chairman if that were his attitude.
Then we have the incident we noted yesterday in which Sen. Frist may, at the president's say-so, change the cloture rules
which require 60 votes to push through legislation.
Past presidents have usually had to deal with Majority Leaders who were much more solicitous of their chamber's independence and institutional prerogatives. But then again, President Bush all but appointed Frist to his post. So this should not surprise us.
There's even an element of parliamentarism in President Bush's post-election comments about his mandate and his right to expect others to fall in line behind views because he won a majority, even if a small one, at the ballot box.
It's fine to bemoan this. And there's much to bemoan. But Democrats also need to learn how to live with it, at least for the next four years. And that means realizing that for at least the next two years, the President can get passed almost anything he wants to. His congressional majorities are now sufficiently padded that he can even afford a few Republican defections. He simply doesn't need Democrats for anything.
And that means approaching most legislative battles not with an eye toward preventing passage or significantly altering legislation, but placing alternatives on the table that the party will be able use as contrasts to frame the next two elections. In other words, their only remaining viable alternative is to be an actual party of opposition.