How Democrats Lost on Two Winning Issues This Week

For months liberal pundits have been crowing about how Democrats were in the catbird seat on the question of extending the Bush tax cuts. By running on a promise to extend them all except for an individual's income over $200,000 or $250,000 for a couple, they had a widely popular position, supported by majorities of the public as a whole and independent voters. Republicans, by arguing to extend all the cuts, were taking the minority view and contradicting their own professed commitment to deficit reduction. So presumably Democrats would either score a political victory by successfully passing popular tax cuts, or get to blame Republicans for holding middle-class tax cuts hostage to unpopular tax cuts for the rich if the Republicans successfully blocked the extension.

No one could possibly blow a political opportunity like that, could they? Democrats, naturally, figured out a way to do just that. Earlier this week vulnerable Democrats from conservative districts began their typical hysteria, circulating a letter to the leadership asking them to pass an extension of all Bush's tax cuts. The leadership, unable to whip its caucus into shape, punted by saying there would be no vote on tax cuts until after the election. Now, why would you want to wait until after the Republicans have handed you a beating at the polls to offer voters free money?

Because, you're a pusillanimous Democrat, and you're afraid that the Republicans will successfully convince your district that you somehow harmed ordinary people by keeping a portion of the tax cuts Republicans wanted to give rich people in the federal treasury, even as you extended exactly the tax cuts for approximately 98 percent of your constituents. Apparently, the idea that you could simply hold two separate votes, one for the Democrats' tax cuts, which would pass, and then the additional one Republicans want for rich people, which would fail, either did not occur to the leadership, or did not reassure their faint-hearted members who thought that a vote against any tax cut, no matter how unpopular and ill conceived, could be used against them. So, in their efforts to avoid looking like insufficient tax-cutters, they have failed to pass any tax cuts at all. They have also, by not even having a vote, failed to clarify for voters that the reason their tax cut remains unsecured is because Republicans won't vote for it unless it contains a vastly greater one for rich people.

You might think this political ineptitude was unusual for the Democratic Party, but if you followed the other big political story this week -- the Defense Authorization bill—then you would see a pattern emerging. President Obama campaigned on a pledge, which is supported by three-quarters of the American public, to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell and let gays serve openly in the armed forces. Obama, in a move worthy of a Democratic congressman, was afraid to take responsibility for implementing this popular measure through an executive order, so he passed the buck to Congress.

Can you guess where this is going? If you guessed, "into the black hole known as the Senate, where popular legislation goes to die," you were right. Senate Democrats, as afraid as the commander-in-chief to take responsibility for ensuring that the people who defend this country's freedoms also enjoy them, stuck the DADT repeal onto the National Defense Authorization Act. This, they figured, would bully Republicans into not filibustering the measure—which had the support of the majority of senators needed to pass a law but fewer than the super-majority needed to overcome a filibuster. But that's because the Democrats were expecting Republicans to act like Democrats. If the situation were reversed, Democrats would cave because they would fear the inevitable attacks that they voted against funding for our troops overseas by opposing the whole Defense Authorization. But Republicans stood up for their beliefs and filibustered anyway. The bill failed. In addition to losing out on gay rights, Democrats thus failed to enact a whole host of liberal agenda items in the bill. Here are a couple of examples, from Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones:

—Standards and certification for private security contractors

—Improvements to Department of Defense domestic-violence programs

—Post-traumatic-stress-disorder counseling for civilian victims of the Fort Hood shootings

—Authority to make excess nonlethal supplies available for domestic emergency assistance.

OK, so you would think that Democrats would be screaming at the top of their lungs about how Republicans must hate our troops because of all the things they just voted against. But no. Go to the Democratic National Committee or Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Web sites and you will see nothing on the subject at all. If nothing else, you would think Democrats would be playing up the actual dispute over civil rights for gay soldiers to enthuse gay and socially liberal voters. But they aren't, and as Eve Conant reported, this may depress turnout among their disappointed ranks in November.

Democrats have plenty of external factors to blame for their impending defeat, from public ignorance and incoherence, to the mess that Republicans left them, but this week shows that another reason is simply their inexplicable inability fulfill popular mandates or score political points in even the most congenial circumstances.

With reporting by Ryan Tracy