The Don't Make Trouble Strategy

by digby

So, it's looking very much like the big corporations are going to get retroactive immunity for helping the government defy the constitution and break the law. The Democratic leadership either agrees philosophically that these wealthy telecoms are innocent victims (which sets a very interesting precedent)or they feel it is too politically risky to take a stand. Whatever the motive, it appears that they are willing to give the Republicans another victory. Evidently, they believe this will make them look better in the eyes of the voters.

If you wonder why that might be, here's an interesting reportfrom the Village media:

BLITZER:Democrats were rushing back to Washington to participate in some voting, and then rushing back to Iowa. What's the latest, Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they sure did rush back, even though it's make or break time on the campaign trail. They scrambled back here to Washington in an attempt to get some legislation moving, and the operative word there is "attempt."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KEILAR (voice over): Democratic presidential candidates hot off the campaign trail sped into Washington today, spending less than an hour on the Senate floor to vote yes on two measures, votes that in the end didn't really matter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The motion is not agreed to.

KEILAR: And with that, a Democratic push on a critical energy bill fell short. It's a different day, but in a way, the same old story. Faced with a determined president and a unified Republican minority, this Democratic-led Congress has held many votes that have failed.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: When one side or the other tries to jam their agenda down the throats of the other side, it doesn't work, and exhibit A is the dismal record of this broken Congress during this last year.

KEILAR: On the flip side, Democrats accuse Republicans of stonewalling.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: My Republican colleagues are filibustering themselves out of their seats come 2008.

KEILAR: In recent weeks, Congress has stalled on legislation to expand the children's health insurance program, stopped the alternative minimum tax from hitting millions more Americans, and reformed the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance program, not to mention the failure to fund almost the entire federal government and give the president more money for the war on Iraq. Democrats say their votes are important even if they don't win.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: We signaled change, we've made a difference, and now we're showing, in order to get much more of this done, we can do some of it this year, but we need a Democratic president and we need stronger majorities in the House and Senate.


KEILAR: Democrats are showing some signs of giving into the president's demands in the hopes that they can get some of this taken care of ahead of the holidays. It looks like ultimately they will approve the latest installment of war funding without strings attached. And Senate Democrats have a plan to scrap tax increases for oil companies from the energy bill in the hopes that they can pass that in the next couple hours -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brianna. Thanks very much.

She's on the Hill.

Let's get to the Americans public's dim view of the Democratic Congress and of President Bush. Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, is here with some brand-new poll numbers as well.

Which side is in a stronger position politically, Bill? Would it be the president of the United States or the Democratic-led Congress.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: The Democratic Congress. And they don't want to risk it.


SCHNEIDER (voice over): The Democratic Congress and President Bush are nearing a showdown. Should Congress stand up to the president? Congressional leaders are painfully aware of what happened when the Republican Congress stood up to President Clinton at the end of 1995, but things are very different now.

In November 1995, President Clinton's job approval stood at 52 percent. What's President Bush's job rating now? Thirty-two percent.

STUART ROTHENBERG, ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: The Democrats ought to have a freer hand here. They ought to be in a stronger position. But they don't quite see it that way.

SCHNEIDER: Why not? Here's one reason. The job approval rating for the Democratic leaders of Congress is only slightly higher than President Bush's. That's partly because Congress isn't standing up to President Bush. Most liberals say they disapprove of the job the Democrats in Congress are doing.

Moreover, when it comes to making tough budget choices, the public prefers the Democrats in Congress over President Bush by better than two to one. So why don't the Democrats stand their ground? Because they don't want to risk handing President Bush an issue.

ROTHENBERG: I think they figure if they can go into the election running against Republicans in the Senate, running against George Bush, they'll take that now rather than risk a big blowup.

SCHNEIDER: Of course, there's also a risk if they give into the president.

ROTHENBERG: If they look weak, if they look ineffectual, they could suffer some costs as well there, but they don't see those as great as a big blowup, what's often referred to as a political train wreck.


SCHNEIDER: Congressional Democrats don't want to be soon as causing a train wreck, even if that makes them looking weak and ineffectual -- Wolf.

I think that's actually a pretty accurate analysis. And what a winning strategy it is. After all, it's not like the Republicans have ever been able to make any political hay out of Democratic weakness. From his remarks this morning on FISA, Reid seems to think he can get away with this by blaming "the blogs" for being unreasonable. (Hey --- maybe he can get a bipartisan vote together to condemn us! That usually soothes the savage beasts for a few days anyway.)

I think the train wreck avoidance strategy is shockingly naive. The real risk is allowing the Republicans to define the agenda and drive the election storyline. As bad as they are at everything else, they are very, very good at that. The Democrats should use the temporary advantage they have while the Republicans flail about for a candidate, to bury them, not appease them. They are taking a huge, unnecessary gamble by just trying to get in under the wire without creating any controversy. It means they are automatically on defense --- the Republicans thrive on the fight and they will bring it if they have any opening at all.

Reid and the Democrats should be defining all this legislation around election themes. In this case, you have powerful interests getting special laws that benefit only them, ordinary citizens being denied their day in court, and Bush's mindless and counterproductive national security policy. There are many ways to attack these things that would set the table for the arguments we are going to have. Right now, the Republicans can't really get their preferred narrative out there because they can't settle on a candidate. It's a rare opportunity to take charge of it and the Dems are foolishly laying out. They think they are playing it safe, but they aren't. They are hiding in plain sight, waiting to be ambushed as soon as the Republicans regroup.

There will probably be a lot of bloggy activity over the next few days on this FISA bill, so stay tuned. There is some slim hope that Harry Reid can be persuaded to change his mind and show Chris Dodd the same respect he shows to Republicans like Tom Coburn. But there's always the risk that such a thing might make some waves and cause the Republican thugs and the Village media to start running around shrieking and wailing about "train wrecks" and we can't have that. So you'll have to pardon me if I'm not entirely sanguine that it will do any good.

Here's a little story from a book called "The Genius of the Jewish Joke" by Arthur Asa Berger:

Three Jews were going to be executed. They were lined up in front of a firing squad and the sergeant in charge asked each one whether he wanted a blindfold or not.

"Do you want a blindfold?" he asked the first. "Yes," he said, in a resigned tone.

"Do you want a blindfold?" he asked the second. "Ok," said the second.

"Do you want a blindfold?" he asked the third. "No," said the third.

At this point the second leaned over to the third one and said "Take a blindfold. Don't make trouble."

That's the Democratic electoral strategy in a nutshell.