In a rolling sea, Democrats are steering directly into the waves.
After Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown's victory in January's Senate special election, Democrats appeared shaken to the point of panic. But, from President Obama on down, the party has rapidly regrouped--enacting health care reform, virtually daring Senate Republicans to filibuster tougher regulation of financial institutions, and challenging the GOP with last weekend's White House announcement of recess appointments for 15 nominees stalled in the Senate. Pundits may be pelting the party with predictions of doom in November, but Democrats have apparently decided that the best defense against a resolute Republican opposition is a good offense. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could have just as easily been speaking for Obama when she recently told columnists: "I'm in the arena; I've jumped in for the fight."
Democrats achieved nothing like that clarity when they last controlled both the White House and Congress, during President Clinton's first two years. As if ducking out of a barroom brawl, Democratic legislators back then routinely deserted their party whenever they thought it would help them at home; few accepted responsibility for passing the president's program. As a consequence, key pillars of Clinton's agenda (health care reform, for example) collapsed. In November 1994, so did the Democrats' House and Senate majorities.
Obama compromises more than Bush, but his determination to advance a bright-line agenda is creating a similar dynamic.
Today, Democrats face much the same electoral challenge as they did then: unyielding opposition from congressional Republicans and a growing grassroots conservative backlash. But after some wavering, Democrats this time have mostly responded by closing ranks, especially in the dramatic drive to complete health care reform. Democrats remain divided on immigration, climate change, and some other issues, but they have united enough to make this arguably the most productive legislative session for any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson.
The key to that success has been the willingness of Democrats elected by the same constituencies as Obama to bind their fate to his. The governing core of the party's House majority has been members elected from districts that Obama carried in 2008. House Democrats who represent such districts voted 199-8 for final approval of the Senate health care bill last month. Last year, they voted 201-1 for Obama's stimulus plan, 194-1 for federal tobacco regulation, 191-8 for financial reform, and 189-15 for climate-change legislation. The Democrats elected in districts that preferred Republican presidential nominee John McCain haven't supported Obama nearly as reliably, but Pelosi has corralled enough of them each time to pass the president's priorities.
In the Senate, the governing core is the 33 Democratic senators elected from the 18 "blue wall" states that have supported the party's presidential nominees in at least the past five elections. In 2009, these senators collectively recorded a stunning 97 percent party unity score on the index calculated by Congressional Quarterly. Around that axis, Democratic leaders have assembled shifting coalitions of Democrats from states that are more closely divided. On the most-momentous votes -- the stimulus plan and the initial health care reform package -- every Senate Democrat from either camp backed Obama.
In all, that's a commitment to party government comparable to the record that Republicans compiled through most of George W. Bush's presidency. Bush's achievements demonstrated the benefit of that disciplined approach: Republicans smoothly passed his program despite narrow majorities and frequently strong Democratic opposition. But Bush's record also shows the risks. Although his forceful agenda generally thrilled his core voters, he infuriated the opposition party -- and eventually alienated independents, who found him too ideological.
Obama compromises more than Bush, but this president's determination to advance a bright-line agenda is creating a similar dynamic. With Obama inflaming the opposition party much as Bush did, a big conservative turnout in November seems guaranteed. To counter that risk, Democrats must hope that independents respond to Obama's success at getting things done (even if they don't endorse all the particulars) and that Democratic partisans are mobilized to vote by the president's dedication to the agenda he campaigned on.
Post-passage polls show that health care reform has done more to invigorate Democrats than to convert independents. That pattern portends continued difficulty for Democrats in conservative areas on the frontiers of the party's congressional majority. But an enthused base could help Democrats minimize their losses in the places where Obama ran best -- and where Democratic legislators have most unambiguously aligned with him. That could provide the party its best chance of navigating through this stormy sea with its control of Congress intact.
This article appears in the April 3, 2010, edition of National Journal.