In Praise of the Democratic Party Leadership in Congress

My political preferences probably aren’t the polar opposite of those of Speaker Pelosi, but we agree politically on very few things.  I’m a classical liberal, Pelosi is a social democrat (and I think describing her that way is being kind).

However, I come not to bury Pelosi but to praise her.  She will certainly have plenty of pundits inside and outside of her party blaming her for losing the Congress and also for what will likely be historic losses in the House.  But it is time to give her some “props” for something big: the willingness to use and risk (and ultimately lose) the power she accumulated to make significant policy changes that met (to a certain extent) her vision of the good.

Power should not be an end in itself (even though it is for many actors) and thus politicians should strive to enact good public policy even at the risk of losing that power.  Of course, the prudent statesman/woman has to carefully weigh whether any particular change that could risk power loss is going to be meaningful and lasting enough to justify the possible sacrifice (such as losing the future ability to do political good/prevent political harm).  Nonetheless, sometimes it is worth going for it even at great personal risk – and this is what Pelosi and company did when they passed health care reform and pushed a fairly aggressive policy agenda once the Democrats handily controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency.

Of course, I vehemently disagree with the substance of the policies that Pelosi and the Democrats have pursued.  Even more problematically, I believe that many of these policies (especially the individual mandate that is part of Obamacare) violate the Constitution that is supposed to restrict what our politicians can do.  And it is possible that the sacrifice will have been in vain if Obamacare falls apart in part or in whole following these elections and a possible Supreme Court decision. 

However, I can only hope that leaders with my policy preferences will someday decide to risk their power to enact potentially lasting and game-changing legislation.  Nancy Pelosi, Rest in Political Peace.

10 thoughts on “In Praise of the Democratic Party Leadership in Congress

  1. Mr. Expired President, I beg to differ. I take it your plaudits for Pelosi are on the basis of something like using her office to act on her principles, and there is surely something worth celebrating when somebody does that. At the same time, her principles are supposed to be (she took an oath that they would be) to support and defend the Constitution. Granted, one can read the Constitution in such a way as to embrace just about anything Congress or other Federal agencies choose to do. But that is just the opposite of acting on principle; that is window-dressing naked exercises of power with rhetoric that has no real meaning. Nobody is to be commended for that view of what the Constitution comes to. But if it has real meaning, then she sure as God makes little green apples ignored it or patently violated it. In other words, she has pursued some of her principles at the expense of others, and those others are the ones she took an oath of office to uphold. I myself see nothing commendable in that story at all.

    And I suspect that, in pushing the Health Care bill through, she never contemplated that it would cost her her majority, hence her seat, and perhaps even one day her job, nor thought “But this exercise of my power is worth it.” I don’t see any reason to credit her with that kind of commitment to principle. But maybe you have information that I don’t.

  2. You may be right that the Dems fooled themselves into thinking that Obamacare would be popular enough by election day – and in that case, they deserve no praise. But I gotta think that the leadership appreciated that there was some significant risk involved and decided, a la Army field manual 3-0, that audacity, audacity, audacity is sometimes the answer.

    What I’m saying is that such audacity is worth admiring, even in – to use Obama’s new words – a political opponent. And I’m in agreement with you that the substance and Constitutionality of these policies is deeply flawed.

    But wouldn’t you agree, for example, that one could think that a group like, say, the Taliban, is a pernicious, nasty, and ultimately evil group – and yet still respect the tenacity, courage, and fierce independence of individual fighters (while still desiring to best them in combat)?

    And no, I’m not comparing Democrats or Pelosi and the Taliban – I’m just trying to starkly explain my point that one can respect something about your opponent, even if they are in fact your enemy as the Taliban is (they are appropriately, and in a non-Schmitterian sense, what Obama said inappropriately or at least in a Schmitterian sense about Republicans).

  3. I agree with you about the Taliban. There is a certain kind of integrity involved there (from what I can tell), which is something admirable, even if it is completely wrongheaded and pernicious. I suppose my complaint is that I see that integrity as missing completely in the case of Pelosi et. al. Maybe audacity is something worth admiring too, but not in the same way; at any rate I’m willing to give them more credit for audacity than integrity. But I can’t give them credit for acting on their principles when they fundamentally betrayed the principles they took an oath to serve.

  4. I’ll come to your defense, Grover. Back when the Republicans had unified control of Congress in 2003-6, they could have acted on traditional, Reaganite Republican priorities such as cutting spending and decentralizing power, but instead they did the exact opposite in a crass bid to create a permanent majority through voter giveaways. The Dems deserve credit for sticking to their guns and pushing through their biggest policy priority of the last two generations: universal health care.

    1. Wait. It is sufficient for the Democrats to be praiseworthy that the Republicans are not? Surely that can’t be your argument, but I can’t see a better one here. You aren’t thinking they are praiseworthy for pushing through their agenda because they could, despite the principles they allegedly vowed to uphold? I think you guys are mistaking power for principle. Sticking to your guns when you have power and are able to impose it on other people is nothing praiseworthy at all.

      1. I’m willing to give them more slack on the constitutional issue. Yes, I think the PPACA was unconstitutional. But I’m willing to acknowledge that they sincerely believe that it was. Given that concession, I think they’re following through on their principles as they see them. That kind of courage can be admired – not as a morally praiseworthy trait, but as a tactically or strategically valuable one.

      2. Tactically and strategically valuable, I’ll give you. Apparently under Mussolini the trains ran on time as well! It’s the moral praiseworthiness that sticks in my craw. But I thought that was Grover’s original point.

  5. I have to side with Mark on this. Passionate advocacy of evil principles is not morally praiseworthy. Neither is passionate advocacy of self-serving principles, nor passionate but selective advocacy of evil or self-serving principles as changing circumstances warrant.

    It is possible to appear to display virtues like courage, by acting audaciously, boldly, and so on, but, as everyone from Aristotle on down would point out, those behaviors are not truly virtuous unless in the service of good ends. Otherwise they are at best the simulacra of virtues; at worst, they are evil in themselves.

  6. beyond principle, Pelosi crafted the major bills in her office, among a narrow group of like minded thinkers. She saw the deliberative, consensual method of legislation through committees, party caucuses, floor debates and amendments as irritating obstacles, not important components of building a good policy. That’s stupid, disrespectful, and not good for party, for country, or the viability of her legislation (many Democrats don’t have an ownership stake).

    The GOP did the same and to his credit Boehner recognizes the problems legislation by oligarchs and has promised to return power to committees and to Reps. We’ll see.

    1. A strong committee system can be good or bad. The downside is that committee chairs are often “preference outliers” who favor higher spending on their pet projects. Delegating power to these types will make it more difficult to cut spending. It’s also worth pointing out that committee chairs are usually selected by seniority, which is a far less democratic and meritocratic procedure than election via the party caucus or the whole chamber, as is done for the chamber and caucus leaderships.

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