Many of the voters who rallied in 2018 to halt the erosion of their democracy are puzzled by Democrats’ reluctance to resist. Why are Democrats so passive and cautious in holding administration officials accountable for obvious crimes? A glass-house dilemma certainly plays a role, but there’s an even larger force at work here which Democratic voters refuse to acknowledge, and therefore fail to fight.
A previous post outlining the personal motives of old-line Democrats drew a furious response on social media. It might be helpful to explore the matter in more specific terms. For tenured Democrats, the folks who survived the party’s contraction and prospered over the past few decades, the Trump Era is a golden age of wine and roses, in which their jobs have never been easier or more secure. They are in no hurry to see it end.
Why are senior Democrats dragging their feet on impeachment? Why are they pressing their voters for patience? And vitally, what tools are they counting on to grind their pesky new young colleagues into compliance? For an answer, take a close look at the two-year budget just approved, without controversy or fanfare, by this otherwise deadlocked Congress. And to understand why this budget matters to Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership, let’s examine the dynamics that toppled one of Pelosi’s senior lieutenants and placed her most irritating critic in Congress.
Freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a surprise victory in a solidly Democratic seat against a long-time incumbent, Joe Crowley, by running on a very progressive national platform. Crowley’s campaign emphasized the money he brought back to his New York City district. In an era of budget scarcity in Washington he secured steady millions in funding for anti-graffiti campaigns, after-school programs, support for 9/11 first responders, and most importantly (by far) almost a billion in loosely defined “security funding” for local transit.
Crowley fed the local Democratic machine and expected to be fed in return. When the machine failed him he was very angry, and its leaders in Washington were concerned. They are fighting back and if Democrats don’t quickly drop their illusions about the power dynamics in their own party, these machine Democrats will steamroll the progressive wing as they’ve done many times in the past.
By virtue of AOC’s strident progressive rhetoric, she’s often imagined as an icon of the lower class, a plucky fighter for the marginalized. That may be true on some level, but she made it to Congress by mobilizing an affluent young generation busy gentrifying some of New York’s coolest neighborhoods. It wasn’t poor people who sent AOC to Congress. Her rise was fueled by an influx of voters into New York’s 14th District who, at least nominally, don’t care about government contracts, and aren’t counting on their Congressman to provide them and their friends with public jobs, or federally funded slots as community organizers.
AOC, along with other new Democratic representatives from more affluent districts, is about to face a challenge. Can she hold her coalition together and win reelection if Nancy Pelosi puts the cash-squeeze on her district? In other words, has the Democratic Party moved fast enough to expand its base beyond poorer districts, organized around a culture of government largesse, or will AOC be forced to play ball to keep the money flowing?
That brings us back to this new budget.
Since the 1970’s, Democratic politicians have faced growing difficulty getting money sent home from Washington. That pressure intensified to critical levels in the 90’s, when a Republican Congress and a weak, compromising Democratic President started applying serious constraints on federal largesse. Across Nancy Pelosi’s entire career, representatives with a talent for prying cash out of an increasingly stingy Washington have been stars within the party, while progressive standouts were moved to the margins.
Delivering a rousing speech on social justice, environmental protection, education reform, or healthcare for all might get you on TV. Making deals to send money back home got you elected and promoted. Chances are, you’d never heard of Joe Crowley before AOC defeated him, but he was one of the most powerful figures in Washington. He didn’t waste energy tickling liberal hearts with passionate speeches. He found out what local community organizers needed in order to hire more people (voters) for their homeless relief thingy or their school something or other assistance program and he made sure they got it. He found out what local business interests wanted and got their priorities funded.
Across the poorer reaches of what used to be a poor, minority-dominated district, this Irish guy got rich and powerful channeling government cash to his voters and friends. There were thousands of voters in the NY14 who owed their jobs to the money he doled out to a kaleidoscope of community organizations. More importantly, there were powerful contractors, developers, and “legitimate businessmen” who depended on him to keep money flowing through contracts. They made sure their employees knew about it, and made sure Old Joe got his cut.
Crowley, like most other senior Democrats, didn’t give a good goddamn about progressive priorities and probably couldn’t name three of them. It wasn’t his job. High-minded rhetoric is for the suckers.
After decades in which every dime squeezed from Congress was a chore, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell have opened the floodgates. A new budget signed with little fanfare in August promises an unprecedented surge of federal spending. Most importantly of all, it kills off the hated sequester which had stifled the growth of discretionary spending. Senior Democrats have never, at any point in their careers, experienced this largesse. Their job, the real one – bringing money home to their districts – has never been easier. But there’s a catch.
McConnell and the President agreed to these terms on the condition that the budget allocations are “deemed.” This new spending has been approved in principle, but the actual disbursements will be broken into a dozen or so subsequent bills addressing each area of the government. To put it another way, McConnell has offered Democrats the deal of a lifetime, but he’s holding that deal hostage to subsequent votes, especially next year. If he gets upset over something, he could obstruct spending in specific areas.
This arrangement puts enormous pressure on the House Speaker to play ball. What will Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership care more about, immigrant children who don’t vote being sent to concentration camps, or the priorities of senior donors, and the leaders of crucial community groups in their districts? We already know the answer. The real question is, can a new generation of Democratic leaders from less machine-dominated districts resist the Speaker’s priorities? History suggests that the answer is no, but times are changing.
One of the consequences of the Democrats’ expansion into suburbs and more affluent areas is that they’ve acquired, for the moment, a set of voters who aren’t moved much by offers of government contracts or government-funded jobs. How long can this last, and how much power can they wield? Will AOC continue to win NY14 if Pelosi blocks funding for key community groups in her district? Can she hold the line if the trucking, construction, waste management and other contractors who depended on Crowley to bring home the loot see their paychecks slashed?
For all the talk about Republican cowardice, Democrats need to take a hard look at their own. Democrats are dragging their feet in the fight against Trump because their leaders are getting everything they really want from this administration. If idealistic Democratic voters continue to keep their heads in a rhetorical fog while their leaders sell them down the river, can they really blame Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump?