Memo To Democrats: Be Nervous
Posted on December 10, 2008This originally appeared in The Politico
As the new Democratic president and the Democratic Congress get ready to figure out how they are going to work together for the next two years, I have a piece of advice for them: Be nervous. Be very nervous. Despite expectations, running a one-party government is not as easy as it seems.
I remember vividly the euphoria that rushed over the newly ascendant GOP as President George W. Bush was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2001. We had a solid majority in the House and a slender majority in the Senate (if you count Vice President Dick Cheney’s vote). Karl Rove and then-Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas talked of building a permanent Republican majority.
Almost immediately, relations began to fray between the White House and Congress. In the House, DeLay led a revolt among conservatives on Bush’s proposed education reform law. In the Senate, Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords led a one-man revolt on Bush’s tax cuts, quitting the GOP in protest of rough treatment from the Bush White House.
After the midterm elections in 2002, the White House nudged out Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott as majority leader and replaced him with Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee. As leader, Frist’s first notable act was to screw both the White House and House Republicans on a budget deal that included only half the tax cuts they wanted. That wound still has not healed. Frist and then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois later pushed through a Medicare prescription drug bill that proved so controversial to conservatives that Hastert had to keep a vote open for three hours just to get it passed.
When Bush was reelected in 2004, with bigger majorities in the House and the Senate, there was again talk about the permanent Republican majority. But the new Congress got off to a rocky start with an ethics controversy and hit its nadir with Hurricane Katrina. And in the middle, the president failed in his efforts to enact Social Security reform, which was ignored, and an immigration reform bill, which sparked a right-wing revolt.
Here are some tips for the Obama administration as it deals with its friends on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue:
Don’t start talking about permanent majorities. There are no permanent majorities, only majorities with two-year contracts. No matter how permanent your majority might seem, there is an election somewhere in the future where you will lose it.
Never surprise Congress. The Bush White House loved to surprise Congress and the press. The administration thought it could ensure that it got its story out on its terms. But Congress hates to be surprised. It makes lawmakers look stupid to their constituents. Surprises backfire. Use selective leaks to get your story out, and use Hill press secretaries to help you with that process.
Listen to your political base, but don’t be intimidated by them. There is a fine line between serving the base and serving the American public. The loudest voices don’t necessarily speak for the country. So while it is important to listen to those voices, it is also important not to be dissuaded from doing the right thing for the country. Immigration is one example where Republicans listened too closely to their base. Pulling out of Iraq too quickly might cause similar problems for Barack Obama.
Don’t get involved in internal congressional politics. When the White House played a behind-the-scenes role in getting rid of Lott, it created many enemies for itself, and chief among them was an angry and talented Trent Lott. It’s far better to let the House and Senate work through their own problems.
Listen, learn and coordinate with Hill press secretaries. Jim Manley of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office and Brendan Daly of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office are talented, smart and used to running the show. They suddenly have a lot less to do than they did a month ago. Keep them in the loop, take their advice and use them to get stories out. Smart members of the White House press corps will be calling them when they can’t get anything out of you. Make sure they have something to say that will be helpful to both of you.
None of these tactics will change the minds of people who disagree on strategy, tactics or philosophy. But they will help soften the edges a bit. And sometimes, getting rid of the hard edges is enough to make the conflicting agendas of the Hill and the White House fit together nicely.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.