Are Democrats Trying to Follow Past GOP Leaders Off the Cliff?

December 14, 2009 · 6:59 AM EST

When the GOP controlled Congress and the White House, many Democrats and their allies in the media complained that Republicans were more interested in pursuing a narrow ideological agenda intended to transform government and society rather than in solving the nation’s problems.

Whether you agreed with that assessment, the charge wasn’t completely unreasonable. Tax cuts to strangle government, deregulation for the sake of deregulation and social policy to advance the conservative agenda at any cost (e.g., Terri Schiavo) seemed among the rules of the day, no matter what the problem or the public’s desire.

During 2007 and 2008, Capitol Hill Democrats were careful not to emulate the approach of GOP Congressional leaders in 1995 and 1996. But since President Barack Obama’s election, those same Democrats seem to have forgotten what happened when Republicans pushed too far, too fast for change.

Increasingly, party leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue seem more interested in pushing an ideological agenda to transform the nation and the federal government rather than in dealing with the nation’s problems.

Until a handful of Senate Democrats negotiated a new health care reform deal that does not include a public option, that seemed more important to Democratic leaders than portability of insurance, ending denial of coverage because of pre-existing conditions and a variety of proposals to lower costs and expand coverage.

Some have argued that only something as dramatic as a public option will truly deal with the nation’s health care “crisis,” but that’s hard to swallow considering the sizable Democratic opposition to the idea in the House and the newly crafted Senate package.

Yes, we have seen this before. After the 1994 elections, GOP leaders interpreted the results as an invitation — even a demand by most Americans — to change the country fundamentally by cutting government.

Of course, that wasn’t the case any more than last year’s presidential and Congressional elections were a mandate for a public insurance option in health care reform or a cap-and-trade bill or the enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Normal people don’t think that way, but politically active ideologues do, and after a sweeping election victory those elites try to impose their collective will on the American people, couching their proposals as the public’s.

Then-Texas Republican Reps. Tom DeLay and Dick Armey’s arrogance allowed President Bill Clinton to “triangulate,” and he was re-elected two years after the Republican tsunami that was supposed to change how Washington worked. Even Clinton’s re-election victory didn’t convince the GOP’s leaders that their constant pedal-to-the-metal strategy was the wrong approach, and DeLay, in particular, continued to look for ways to move his revolution forward on Capitol Hill until he left Congress.

During the DeLay years, Republican Congressional leaders spent much of their time talking to their contributors, media allies (such as Rush Limbaugh) and public policy soulmates at the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Tax Reform. No wonder they got a distorted view of what they needed to do on Capitol Hill.

Now, the players are different. It’s the Center for American Progress, big labor unions, Planned Parenthood and liberal bloggers — but the result is the same: a Democratic agenda that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.); Reps. Henry Waxman (Calif.), Ed Markey (Mass.) and George Miller (Calif.); and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) want.

It’s fair, of course, to observe that Democratic leaders are in a bind. They are being pulled by party moderates on Capitol Hill toward the center and to the left by the party’s base. But let’s not be naive. The Waxmans and Millers of the world aren’t being pulled toward the party’s base despite their own political judgment. That’s where they want to go.

Putting all of the blame on the Democratic base for the party’s ideological agenda in 2009 would have been like asserting that DeLay and Armey merely were pawns of the party’s ideologues in 1995. Congressional leaders then, and now, are part of that base.

If Congress really wanted to take important steps to reforming health care, broadening coverage and bending the cost curve, they could have started to make real progress before Wednesday.

The strategic political argument that Democrats had to stake out a position far to the left so that they could negotiate the best deal possible was reasonable up until Labor Day. But now, with the end of the year fast approaching, Congressional Democrats should be celebrating passage rather than scrambling to find new ideas that would be acceptable to moderates and liberals in both the House and the Senate.

Coming up with a new idea three weeks before Christmas and jamming it through the Senate may well be what party leaders do best. But it’s no way to write important legislation.