We’re hearing a lot these days about the Republican Party. We hear/read about where they’re were. We hear a lot about where they’re supposedly going. Then we hear a lot about where they should be going, which is different depending on your exact political views. It’s all exciting debate, and one that is necessary to ensure that the party is successful in the future.
What we don’t hear a lot about these days is the fortunes of the Democratic Party. The assumption seems to be that there needs to be no discussion of this party’s future because they’re currently in power. Yet, the actions of those inside the party, especially of those in positions of power, could have reverberations that affect the electoral success of the party come next year. The only thing that is possibly more important than actions themselves is the response to those actions.
So far, the response to some of the scandals by party members has been pretty awful, and it could harm the Democrats in 2010.
Officially, the general rule of thumb of politics in America is that every politician is out for himself or herself, and that the actions of one member do not spell doom for their whole party. This is said to be different from European parliamentary systems where misdeeds by one politician could determine the fate of the whole party. As such, politicians in America enjoy a great deal of political freedom to vote in whatever way they determine to be correct, even against the interests of their party, and are not bound by party loyalty.
In practice, the story is much different. The actions of several people in Congress (or one at the presidential level) can have sweeping implications for that person’s party. The Republicans lost Congress in 2006 partially because of weariness from the Iraq War, but also partially because of some reported transgressions from members of Congress, such as former Rep. Tom Delay. In 2008, Republicans in Congress were again in trouble, and while the races in Congress were in large part distinct from the race for the presidency, where Democrats led races for Congress, so did Obama. So yes, what happens in one branch of government can influence the fortunes of another branch.
Thus, not only do Republicans need to learn lessons from 2006 and 2008, but so do Democrats.
Yet, it doesn’t appear that the Democrats are actually learning these lessons. The two biggest scandals I can think of are those affecting Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Dodd, of course, has been embroiled in several scandals. The first was last year’s receiving favorable terms on the refinancing of his home by Countrywide Financial prior to that institution’s collapse. In his capacity as Chariman of the Senate Banking Committee, Dodd has been slammed for his failure to forsee the financial crisis, being involved in an attempt to retroactively limit bonuses of executives at banks that are receiving federal money. There are others as well. The latest Quinnipiac poll, from April, has Dodd 16 points behind Republican Rob Simmons.
Pelosi, meanwhile, has most recently been involved in a battle with the CIA regarding what she knew about the waterboarding of Iraq War detainees. Like Dodd, Pelosi’s approval ratings are dropping.
It is things like these that could hurt the Democrats. However, as I indicated in the article introduction, what may be worse than the actions themselves is the response to them. The problem is that political parties have a tendency to protect their own (with certain exceptions). This is nothing new, of course. The Republicans have done this before, and usually only an indictment got them to change their minds (see Ted Stevens in 2008 or Tom Delay in 2006). It now seem that the Democrats are following suit with Dodd and Pelosi.
Although they’re not moving to publically support Dodd or Pelosi, neither are the Democrats criticizing them either. While this may seem like a silent disapproval to the Democrats, to the public it will seem like silent acceptance. The perception would be rightly deserved, since in politics, this is what silence usually means.
This cannot be the course Democrats need to take if they wish to hold on to Congress in 2011. They must demand their leaders to come clean, in Dodd’s case his involvement with Countrywide and other scandals, and with Pelosi her knowledge of the torture of detainees. If they don’t, it may not be only Dodd and Pelosi losing seats in the next Congress.
Silence is simply not acceptable. If the Democrats think that saying nothing will protect them, they are dead wrong. While the cases involving a few members may not be enough to lose them their overall majority (this year), they would lose any hope they had of maintaining a supermajority. However, if more scandals are uncovered (and it is inevitable that they will be), the Democrats could find themselves in the minority again very quickly. It will be worse if it appears the party is trying to cover up these scandals, or at least say nothing about them.
Honesty and an adherance to ethical standards is going to be important for the Democrats in the coming years. The party has a chance to remain relevant if they fully investigate the scandals that come before them, including those in their own party. However, if the party does nothing about these transgressions, it will be back to the wilderness for them.