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Shadow Government

Josh Marshall notes that Bush is reconceptualizing the government along the lines of a parliamentary regime. I think that's exactly right (interestingly, such a reconceptualization was once one of Woodrow Wilson's pet ideas, much as Bush has taken over a lot of the ill-conceived foreign policy of the early Wilson, but I digress) and Democrats need to recognize the natural corollary. The role of a parliamentary opposition party is not to halt the government's initiatives, negotiate with the government's ministers, or, in any way, to impede or effect the progress of the government's agenda. Instead, the opposition's role is simply to lay out an alternate agenda, point-by-point, on the subjects that are raised in parliament while devising a platform on the basis of which to fight the next election. I think this is the path that the Democrats need to take.

There's much talk in the air right now of the need for the Democrats to get serious about blocking the most objectionable elements of the Bush agenda, but I don't think it's realistically possible. Someday, Bush may put something on the table that's sufficiently offensive to some group of moderate Republicans that they're inspired to get on the horn with Harry Reid and say, "hey, if you guys all hang together on this along with me, we can block it." If such a call is placed, the Democrats should, of course, answer the phone. But the call should not be expected, nor should the Democrats waste much time placing the converse call and canvassing moderates. Republican Senators and Representatives are capable of acting like individuals rather than the robotic slaves of Frist/Delay/Rove/Bush if and when they choose to, but so far they've given little indication that they have or will so choose, except for the purposes of offering the occassional juicy quote to a newspaperman. But kvetching in the elite media is not opposition, and Democrats shouldn't fool themselves into believing that Chuck Hagel or Susan Collins or Arlen Specter is going to ride to the rescue.

As I say, under the circumstances, the only viable path is opposition. Not obstruction, but opposition. To even try too hard at obstruction is to make it appear that Democrats have power that they do not, in fact, have. Participating in the system is a means of legitimizing it. It's not worth doing. Bush will, evidently, lay out some "broad principles" for the partial privatization of Social Security. Democrats won't be able to stop it, and ought to focus their energy on coming up with an alternative plan for Social Security that says something other than "hey -- let's not allow younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes" etc. Democrats should put the plan forward, do their best to explain it to people, not expect to get the opportunity to hold a vote on it, and prepare to lose -- not roll over, but lose -- when the vote is held on the Bush plan.

Bush's agenda, once implemented, will either be popular, or else it won't be. The Democratic alternative will either be clearly and compelling presented to the public, or else it won't be. Legislative machinations will prove a distraction from the main task.

November 5, 2004 | Permalink


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» Parliamentary politics from coffee grounds
Josh Marshall advances, and Matt Yglesias seconds, the observation that the Republicans are moving towards a form of parliamentary government, in the sense that the executive holds the whip hand over the legislative branch, and that party discipline wi... [Read More]

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Here's my suggestion for Democratic policy discussion topic number one: To whom should we move the responsibilities of executive oversight previously held by Congress? [Read More]

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» It all comes down to the filibuster from Brendan Nyhan
Matthew Yglesias makes a baffling claim: There's much talk in the air right now of the need for the Democrats to get serious about blocking the most objectionable elements of the Bush agenda, but I don't think it's realistically possible. [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 6, 2004 1:21:09 AM

» A Democratic Shadow Cabinet from battlepanda
Josh Marshall made the observation that with the consolidated power of the Republicans and their willingness to wield that power from the executive branch, steamrollering over any moderates in their party, is really making our system more like a parlia... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 6, 2004 9:55:40 AM

» Moving Forward from Democrats & Liberals:
[I posted this on my own blog back on November 6, but it still seems relevant.] America has made a grievous error. I'm not going to spend much effort analyzing why. As Matthew Yglesias notes, "these things are multicausal. Elections... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 29, 2005 5:51:54 AM


Republican Senators and Representatives are capable of acting like individuals rather than the robotic slaves of Frist/Delay/Rove/Bush if and when they choose to, but so far they've given little indication that they have or will so choose, except for the purposes of offering the occassional juicy quote to a newspaperman

If and when they choose to, or when they're taking much heat in their states and districts. Beltway diplomacy is indeed a bad idea. We must do to moderate Republicans what they did to Max Baucus. Their party leadership or their re-election.

It worked spontaneously during the Senate trial of Clinton's impeachment. We need the grassroots organizations to become experts on every moderate GOP congressman's district, and moderate Senator's state voting patterns.

We should also make an effective transition to a parliamentary-style opposition. That means Kerry for Senate minority leader.

Posted by: Sean Flaherty | Nov 5, 2004 12:50:27 PM

It's too bad that we get a parliamentary-style majority without at least getting the benefit of Question Period. I would love to see how Bush would deal with answering the Loyal Opposition's questions once a week.

Posted by: Jason | Nov 5, 2004 12:56:15 PM

What is really scary are the new threats to change the cloture rules. We could be in a situation where the Republicans change the tax laws so that no one with more than $200,000 pays any tax at all, and no one could do anything about it. We could be at their mercy soon, and I have a feeling that we have to consider other modes of opposition.

Posted by: Bob H | Nov 5, 2004 1:04:09 PM

Two words, Matt. Judicial review.

English judges don't have the authority to overturn acts of Parliament or impose Constitutional constraints on it. American judges do. And they are tenured for life.

If we get five Clarence Thomases or Antonin Scalias on the Court, we will not see the prospect of a Democratic parliamentary government having its chance for, oh, three or four decades.

Posted by: TedL | Nov 5, 2004 1:05:58 PM

"We could be in a situation where the Republicans change the tax laws so that no one with more than $200,000 pays any tax at all, and no one could do anything about it."

Turning them out of office at the next election is scarcely nothing.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 5, 2004 1:11:53 PM

Good advice to Democrats in office, perhaps, but you'll have to get the memo out to the liberals and progressives who, even as we speak, are formulating plans to push their remaining political leadership into being as obstructionist as possible. Hard for Dem pols to lay out an alternate agenda and plan for the next election when their base is fulminating about massive resistance.

Posted by: PG | Nov 5, 2004 1:17:30 PM

Just remember the failures of the Gingrich congress. They had a lot of success at the midterm elections, mainly because Clinton went a little further than the mainstream of America felt was just with health reform. Bush may do the same with Social Security. However Gingrich's sucess was short lived. Few of the issues they campaigned on were implemented and by making it a congress vs. Clinton, they lost the gains they had made.

It took a lot of thought to remake the party and, in some ways, the best elements of the Republican revolution of the mid-90's were unfortunately lost. (i.e. the Republican congress abandoned most of the progressive and democratic aspects of the Contract with America - i.e. term limits, limited spending, anti-pork bills) Now the Republican congress has become much like the worst they attacked.

I think Democrats could easily do something like the Contract with America in 2006. Further, either Reid or Clinton in the Senate, could really turn it into quite a bit of power and a setup for the Presidency in 2008. But they have to be careful.

Posted by: Clark Goble | Nov 5, 2004 1:18:49 PM

Along these lines I was thinking that abstaining from votes was a better solution than voting no. The resoning would be that a congressperson was not against, say, healthcare reform, but that the Republican-authored bill in question was not a credible or serious attempt at healthcare reform. Provide many amendments, and when they do not pass, abstain. Votes and amendments should be viewed as nothing more than tactical opportunities to frame opposition.

Posted by: theCoach | Nov 5, 2004 1:20:02 PM

Most voters don't care about legislative machinations either way.

Legislative machinations to protect the supreme court would be very welcome. There are a lot of Republicans whose constituants would be unhappy if "roe v. wade" is overturned. People need to know the effect of "strict contructionist" judges.

Democrats need to set up a fund for TV attack ads when supreme court nominees come out. We need to turn "strict constructionist" into a dirty word.

Posted by: joe o | Nov 5, 2004 1:27:50 PM

TedL is right about the judicial system... as far as I'm concerned, we can let them do whatever the hell they want to over the next few years (yes, it is going to suck for disadvantaged non-fanatics, minorities, and so forth, but I don't see any way around that right now), except appoint crazed judges. I have faith in the awfulness of GOP policies, and it seems like the only way to properly discredit them is to let them fail in as spectacular a way as possible... but while it might take a decade or two to fix things, mean rightwing judges seem to live forever.

Of course we should present better policies as well, but there's no point in pleading with anyone to enact them. Much better to save what little political power we have left for salvaging the judiciary.

Posted by: latts | Nov 5, 2004 1:28:09 PM

I may be wrong, but isn't the term of art 'shadow cabinet'? 'Shadow government' has an altogether sinister sound to it.

Posted by: Troy | Nov 5, 2004 1:29:27 PM

I've noticed that our government is becoming more like a parliamentary system too. Unfortunately, like JASON said, I think our government has all of the vices of a parliamentary system, and none of the virtues. At least in a parliamentary system MPs take responsibility for what their parties do, in our system, Congressmen and Senators can vote against a party's bill if their vote won't affect the outcome. They can vote against something that they actually support.

One thing that is supposedly bad about a parliamentary system is that ill-thought-out bills are more likely to be passed when all you have to do to pass a law is to get it through a one house legislature. Theoretically, if a bill has to be passed by two houses of the legislature, and then signed by the president, you are less likely to have this "hasty legislation."
I think, in terms of bad, hasty legislation, the Bush administration is the pits. No one would defend the Farm Subsidy Bill and Prescription Drug Bill as good public policy, no one would say that those two bills are popular either. People will disagree on the merits of Bush’s tax cuts, but certainly they were not all that popular. Polls in 2001 showed that most people thought debt reduction and health care were more important than cutting taxes. Of people who wanted to cut taxes, I doubt many liked the overall shape of the two tax cuts with their tilt to the rich either.

Another problem with a parliamentary system is that MPs cannot dissent from their party leaders. It’s pretty undemocratic if a representative can’t vote his own conscience, or the views of his constituents. Unfortunately, we’re seeing unprecedented party discipline in our Congress. I can’t find the numbers, but decades ago, Congressmen only voted with their party majorities about 55% of the time. Today, Congressmen vote with their party majorities almost 90% of the time. Part of that is from realignment, but its also from more pressure by party leaders.

As an example of leadership pressure, you know how the Prescription Drug Bill was passed. The Republicans kept the floor vote open for three hours in the middle of the night until they could twist enough arms to get the thing passed. Republicans who opposed the Drug Bill were threatened with all kinds of retaliation, like losing committee assignments, no money, and primary opponents. House Republicans voted for Bush’s tax cuts unanimously.

DeLay even has a "catch and release" policy. If a Congressman says "the bill is unpopular in my district," DeLay will have him vote last, and let him vote against the bill if his vote isn't needed. That way, the Congressman escapes can say to his constituents "I listened to how you opposed X, and bucked by own party. I'm sorry the bill passed anyway." Deceptively, that Congressman would have voted for the bill if he had had to. (that's escaping accountability)

Yet another problem with parliamentary systems is that the opposition party can criticize a bill, but really can’t do anything to stop it. We’re seeing that problem here now. Republicans routinely refuse to allow the Democrats to offer amendments to bills. The Republicans either just say the Dems can’t offer anything, or they "fill the amendment tree" so there isn’t the room or the time for the Democrats to offer anything.

One virtue of a presidential system is that Congress can investigate a president who commits a misdeed. For the past four years, despite many deeds that are worthy of investigation, we’re seeing virtually nothing.

There is no investigation or criticism of how Muhammad Noor Khan’s name got revealed to the press, there is no investigation of how the administration blatantly lied over the costs of the prescription drug bill, there have been no investigations of the shady dealings and accounting corporations like Halliburtan are doing in Iraq. In 2002, the Bush admin took a billion dollars that had been appropriated for Afghanistan and spent it in Kuwait to prepare for the Iraq War. There has been no investigation of that, the no-bid contracts, or anything else. Bush barely consented to the 9-11 commission too.

Another virtue of checks and balances is that Congress can pursue its own agenda if the president has a bad one. With the exception of McCain-Feingold, the past two Congresses have been utterly subservient to the White House. Bill Frist was even chosen as Republican leader by Bush and Rove. Bush is the first president in over 100 years not to have to veto a bill.

I am not the only person who is saying our system of checks and balances has broken down. Senator Robert Byrd has just come out with a book about how this administration has broken with traditions of consultation that have existed for decades. Robert Byrd has been in Congress longer than you and I have been alive, combined. He has written a four volume history of the Senate.

One major virtue of parliamentarianism is how you get a much better public debate about the issues that face the nation. Every week the prime minister has to answer questions from parliament, and during campaigns voters generally vote for the party whose manifesto they agree with, not for the PM whose personality or life story is more appealing. (as an example of how personality of the PM is not that important, in 1945 the British electorate voted out Winston Churchill!)

Posted by: JSB | Nov 5, 2004 1:30:20 PM

Yeah, but what about the judiciary?

Posted by: praktike | Nov 5, 2004 1:38:32 PM

Additionally, what about Grover Norquist's plan to defund the Democratic party?

Posted by: praktike | Nov 5, 2004 1:40:14 PM

Wow -- sounds like we are resigned to a divided electorate. Monolithic voting blocks. Pure power to one side or the other. The end of discourse in the senate.

I think you're wrong. No one gives a fuck about policy alternatives that are never voted on. We don't have any power -- but we can try to be the voice of reason and moderation and let them vote us down. We can fight for civil discourse and the survival of the institution itself. Not showing up, not fighting for what we believe in, or not even fighting for ability to express our beliefs is a mistake.

We need to make a stand for unity and discourse. That means not letting the senate change its cloture rules in order to fuck the minority. That means making a stand against gerrymandering at the national level. That means proposing reasonable campaign reform.

I don't think we can win in a divided America.

Posted by: nwonknu | Nov 5, 2004 1:44:07 PM

I think the idea of Shadow Governments is a good one, both for the Democrats in their present circumstances and for the long-term political health of the nation. Of course, it will probably rarely happen that the 2 chambers of Congress will be in the hands of the president's party, but even so, a good idea.

Shadow Governments will probably tend to make unrealistic proposals or tend to not worry about how their proposals would be budgeted, but even so, they would be an improvement on the current system, since they would present a clear alternative.

Posted by: dubious | Nov 5, 2004 1:45:38 PM

It's the Vietnamization of American government. The only way to save the Democrats is to burn them to the ground. The only way to save social security is have it be completely privatized. And so on.

The problem with the shadow government is that a lot is long term. It'd be great if in a little under two years we could focus on the different results that would have occurred with Democrats in various house seats, but so much deals with things far away. A little tax cut here, some more mercury in the water there and no one notices (especially as long as they can blame liberals and hold on to jesus), but in some areas this could work, especially if interest rates go up.

Posted by: dstein | Nov 5, 2004 2:08:24 PM

I believe you are exactly right on this. Individual members of congress should vote for they believe is right and what is best for their constituants. When they vote against a Bush plan, they should say straightforwardly why they did so. i.e., I am voting against the 80 billion defense funding bill, because it does not require fiduciary accountability. Then describe the alternative proposal. They should stay on point and not allow themselves to be badgered by media, etc.

Also, all Democrats and their advisers, etc should stay off the talk shows. This will leave republicans with no one to make fun of, harass and talk trash to but other republicans. (They can't just all sit and agree with each other because that is BORING television.) Perhaps that will help divide the party.

How will Democrats then get the word out? I don't know. Joe Trippi spoke on Bill Moyers about ways a President Kerry could bypass Congress and the media and take issues straight to the people, even asking for input (not just pr bullshit, but a real exchange) which sounded credible. This could work for congresspeople as well.

Posted by: Cathy Sullivan | Nov 5, 2004 2:12:19 PM

You guys talk about moving to Canada. I've got news for you: this is exactly how it works in Canada when you lose an election. You don't get to make policy. You don't get to obstruct policy. You just have to criticize and hope that you win next time around.

I think Matt is right that that is how the Democratic Party should act. It doesn't really have a choice anyway.

As a Canadian, it also seems to me that progressives have really failed to use state governments to achieve their objectives. California and New York are bigger than most countries. They both have Republican governors and an undistinguished record of progressive policy innovation. If you can't make it there, you can't make it anywhere.

Posted by: Gareth | Nov 5, 2004 2:25:43 PM


I saw that others have mentioned judicial review and 'question period.' I think your idea is a good one in a procedural sense, but there's likely to be a need for some serious obstructionism in the next two years, the time in which Bush has said he'd be making his boldest moves. There's a possible bailout ahead in the '06 election - an opportunity for the Dems to achieve what the GOP did in '94. It's far from a sure thing, but boldness would seem to be a crucial asset.

I'd tend to think that one more big faiilure would justify a shadow-government approach, and that the '04 election was hardly a big loss in historical terms. Not that that makes it feel any better, but the game would seem to be far from over.

Posted by: gavin mcnett | Nov 5, 2004 2:33:34 PM

If the Democrats behaved as a shadow cabinet, how do we know that the media would cover their ideas? What could be done to ensure that the entire Democratic caucus endorses those ideas?

This supports the notion that the USA has the problems of parliamentarism, but not its benefits.

Posted by: JSB | Nov 5, 2004 2:40:49 PM

English judges don't have the authority to overturn acts of Parliament or impose Constitutional constraints on it. American judges do. And they are tenured for life.

So? With a Bush controlled Supreme Court -- and, even if resignations take too long, I can see him packing it if need be -- that just adds to their control, rather than reducing it.

Posted by: cmdicely | Nov 5, 2004 2:55:15 PM

As far as a divided country -- we have that. It's here. (As an example of that, here in Oregon the Democrats had a very good election, regaining the state Senate and easily reelecting two Congressmen facing well-funded, talented opponents as well as a Senator with token opposition.)

So we have to deal with the division.

Now, there are 14 Republican Senators up for reelection, including seven from states where Kerry won or did fairly well: Maine, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Ohio, Nevada, Arizona, and Virginia.

Two (Chafee and Snowe) are nice Republicans, but we have to work to replace them all now. With the present quasi-parliamentary system, Chafee and Snowe are just as bad as the others.

Posted by: Zizka | Nov 5, 2004 2:58:33 PM

If we embrace the quasi-parliamentary system, embrace the disfunction, embrace the lack of dialogue, embrace the hate, embrace the winner take all aspect -- what happens when we next have different parties in the Whitehouse and in congress.

It'll just be a contest to see who can make the other look the worst. I don't think that's really good for the country. Getting rid of all of the moderates in the senate and the house is not going to help.

Posted by: sdf | Nov 5, 2004 3:24:19 PM


You're getting carried away in your estimate of Republican power. I think you are letting your own current feelings of cultural alienation distort your picture of the actual electoral situation. The country may not be with the Democrats on the cultural front right now, but they are with the Democrats on many other domestic issues, including bread and butter issues. Let's attempt some historical perspective here.

In 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988 the Democrats got thoroughly *creamed* in presidential elections. It was nothing like the last two elections. they were all routs. The only break in a twenty year pattern of Republican White House domination was a fluke that occured in 1976 after a Republican president destroyed his own administration and was forced to commit hari kiri. Even then, Carter managed only a narrow victory in 1976, and handed the Presidency back to the Republicans in the 1980 reagan landslide.

This year, in each of the states of Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio and Florida, Bush received no more than 52% of the vote. In Arkansas, Arizona, Missouri and Virgina, the vote was no more than 55% Republican. As elections go, the Democrats this time around have about as rosy a scenario one can have short of actually winning.

There is plenty of opportunity for a successful Democratic assault on Republican power. It should begin right away by targeting Bush through his legislative agenda in the house and working it's way up to the top. Democrats should aim for the house and start today by labeling Tom Delay and his radical Republican cohort public enemy #1.

I think you may be worried that if the Democrats thwart the radical right agenda in Congress over the next four years, there will be little to blame them for in 2008. But that's never the way it works. You *first* block the agenda and take credit for holding back the tides of Republican economic and environmental extremism; then you *also* blame them for not getting anything done. Cynical? Perhaps, but effective.

Bush is a lame duck, and second term presidents always lose some of their luster. The public grows tired of their act. Republican representatives and senators have to start thinkning about 2006 and 2008. Not every "red" state and county is a bastion of hard right Republicanism. Many are much more moderate and only Republican-leaning. Their representatives often seek re-election by earning credits among their constituents for doing things that show they are independet-minded and not party hacks. To get them to vote on your side you don't have to focus on crafty machinations in the legislature. You go directly to the people with a propaganda campaign to scare them about Republican economic laissez faire extremism.

Polls show much of the Bush agenda, especially in the economic and environmental areas, is quite radical in the eyes of the public and not at all popular. Bush seems to have followed something like the Gingrich strategy of pursuing a radical and draconian "contract on America" by sneaking it in under the radar of the culture war. He was also able to distract people from the unpopular part of his domestic agenda by launching a distracting foreign war. But remember that Bush was in big trouble before 9/11, when all he had to stand on were his unpopular domestic policies. Bush, DeLay and friends may go down in ball of flames just like Gingrich did.

I think Democrats should probably pursue Southwestern strategy - go a little easier on gun control perhaps, but push harder on the environment and make a stronger appeal to Hispanics and the rural poor and hard-pressed. Aim for Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona. Westerners tend to be more libertarian, and less fundamentalist than people in the South and Midwest, and the cultural gap is not as big an issue.

But first Democrats must shore up the wavering upper Midwest and snag Ohio with a bold populist agenda aimed at displaced industrial and rural workers, a comprehensive program for putting Middle America back to work.

Americans get very nervous about one-party governement and extremism. And Bush and Republican Congressional leadership will almost inevitably overreach, because overreaching is built into the system.

Most people, whe they talk about a President spending "political capital" in his second term, mean something like this: A President spends his first term achieving popular results, and focuses particularly on delivering the goods to his base. Then, freed from the burden of seeking re-election, and with a hefty supply of popular trust and good will in the bank, he is able to use his second term to pursue less popular policies and do what needs to be done, and take the political hits himself to protect his fellow party members in Congress.

But Bush's comments yesterday about "political capital" reveal he means something entirely different. In his own deranged mind he has achieved a broad and untainted electoral mandate, and is finally out from under the 2000 Florida shadow. He now crazily regards his meagre 52% of the American public as a powerful mass movement that has signed a permission slip for him to run with his radical agenda. This should be music to Democrats' ears. Bush, DeLay and company are about to embark on a quixotic quest to fashion the political instruments of their own destruction in 2008.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Nov 5, 2004 3:26:17 PM

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