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Getting Tough Would Only Exacerbate the Problem

Over the next few days, a group of Congressional experts will try to answer the big questions that came out of the Capitol last year: Were the Democrats as hapless as the press made them out to be? How could've they been more effective in meeting those filibustering Republicans head-on? What happened with the timetable for withdrawal? And, hey, where's Rahm when you need him? You can read their responses here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven.

From: Michelle Cottle

To: Eve Fairbanks and Norman Ornstein

Subject: Getting Tough Would Only Exacerbate the Problem

Hi all--

Starting off, I gotta say that Norm's interpretation meshes with what I've been hearing from House and even Senate folks. Nancy Pelosi has had a hideously fine line to walk, trying to get legislation passed that actually accomplishes something--but that can also get through the Senate. Barring that, she at least needed to hold all her troops together so the party could avoid the "Democrats in chaos" storyline that journalists are always so eager to follow.

And Norm is right: It definitely is worth remembering that while Pelosi has been slapped around in the press and blogosphere for not being as bold and inspirational as Newt, Newt actually didn't get very far with his beloved Contract with America--also thanks to the Senate. Democrats, by contrast, actually got a fair amount done this session. But, as the WaPo piece Eve mentions notes, the problem is that they didn't manage to make progress on a couple of key items--most notably Iraq, which tended to overshadow everything they did accomplish. (The S-CHIP battle is, however, a legislative failure that’s expected to help them score major political points against Republicans come election time.) This isn't a do-nothing Congress. But it is a Congress that wasn't able to end a war that the president essentially has made the cornerstone of his administration.

On a more micro level, it will be interesting to see how the recent alternative minimum tax reform's busting of the pay-as-you-go rules sits with the Blue Dogs. Part of Pelosi's wooing of her more conservative caucus members involved her embrace of their priority of fiscal discipline. Pelosi had to turn to Republicans to get the AMT votes because the Blue Dogs wouldn't bend. Who knows how deeply this split will damage that relationship going forward. Party unity is very, very important to Pelosi. If she loses the confidence of conservative Dems, her 2008 could be a lot tougher than even 2007.

OK, moving on, a question for you, Norm:

I've been making your basic shut-the-place-down argument to Senate Dems, who counter that this is the sort of thing they tried to do--unsuccessfully--early on (à la the all-nighter-pajama-party-with-cots photo op). With that approach and this group of Republicans, they say, you get nothing: not ethics reform, not minimum wage increase, not AMT reform, not any shot at an energy bill. Then you really do get branded a do-nothing Congress, and the voters are even more miffed.

Yeah, I know, some people figure Congress's approval ratings couldn't sink any lower. But I actually think the situation could be much grimmer for Dems specifically. People always kinda hate Congress--especially when something big is going on like, say, an ill-advised war. And at this point, polls show that the Dems are more highly regarded than Republicans. (House leadership is peddling some new Hart poll showing that voters favor Dems by more than 20 points when asked which party will bring needed change to the country.)

Also, particularly with the spending bills, don't both of you suspect the Dems have an all-too-vivid memory of just how popular Newt wound up in the wake of his government shutdown? Does that make congressional Dems weenies? Maybe. But it doesn't necessarily make them wrong.

(Read Norman Ornstein's response here.)

Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic. Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic. Norman Ornstein is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, in 2006, of The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann.

By Michelle Cottle, Eve Fairbanks, and Norman Ornstein