Beginning in 2003, Democrat Artur Davis represented Alabama’s 7th District for four terms in Congress. Following a defeat in Alabama’s 2010 gubernatorial primary, he retired from politics. Late last year, Davis left the Democratic Party and became an independent.
Davis is currently a Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. This conversation took place in his IOP office on February 15th.
MATT BIEBER: It’s been clear for a while now that the Republicans and Democrats in Congress are less able to get along and work together than they did in decades past. It also seems like they like each other less. Is that right? What did your day-to-day encounters with Republican colleagues look like?
ARTUR DAVIS: Well, there was a big difference in the level of bipartisan engagement…over the eight years that I served in Congress.
When I got in Congress in 2003, it was a very different political environment from the one that exists today or the one that existed during my last years in Congress. As hard as it is to reconstruct today, President Bush was extremely popular at that time, had a 60+% approval rating. Congress had done a number of bipartisan initiatives from No Child Left Behind to the Sarbanes-Oxley financial reform bill. A significant number of Democrats had voted for the Bush tax cuts, and there was almost unanimous support in early 2003 for President Bush’s policies on terror [and] the PATRIOT Act. There was even a significant amount of Democratic support for the war in Iraq, but that was a much more controversial proposition.
So, when I arrived in Congress, it was during a time when Democrats and Republicans regularly shared the same political views on important issues, when they regularly worked together even on issues that were deeply controversial, like healthcare. There was a bipartisan coalition of Ted Kennedy, John Edwards and John McCain who were pushing for something that [is now] long-forgotten, called the Patient’s Bill of Rights. That was thought to be a very important area of improving the quality of healthcare ten years ago. And you had John McCain and John Edwards leading the floor fight from both sides of the aisle. Campaign finance reform, for that matter – McCain-Feingold united Republicans and Democrats.
By the time I left Congress, there was no significant bipartisan legislative activity – none. We went from a time that produced a number of bipartisan [bills] to a time in which there were virtually none.
When I first came to the House, most members of Congress went back to their districts and routinely touted the relationships that they’d built across the aisle. It was considered to be good politics for Democrats to go back home and say, “I work with Republicans to get things done,” and vice versa. By the time I left, the best politics was members going back to their districts and saying, “I’m standing there fighting the Republicans” or “I’m standing there fighting the Democrats.”
This campaign cycle, the Democratic members of Congress facing primaries are not going around talking about the Republicans they work with. They’re talking about how they’re standing and fighting with Barack Obama to save Medicare and Social Security. The Republicans who are facing primaries are not going back to their districts and talking about the relationships they have with Democrats. They’re talking about their efforts to repeal Obamacare and stop Democratic spending.
So, there’s been a change in how members describe their work. There’s been a change in how members perceive what voters want them to do and be, and it’s created a much more hyper-partisan environment. An important thing to point out, there were 63 new Republicans in 2010, and there were about 80 races that were competitive.
It sounds like a lot until you realize that there are 435 districts. Now I will certainly trust you do the math better than me, but subtract 80 from 435 and you’re left with in the upper threes – that’s the number of districts that were not competitive in one of the most fractious, volatile cycles we’ve ever seen, and a cycle where Republicans gained more seats than their party had gained since the 1930s.
Most people don’t know that, or they know it but never thought about the significance of it. When 350-some seats are not contested, that means that first of all, for the given member of Congress, they’re not terribly worried about the Democrat or Republican. They’re worried about the person who may be building to challenge them in the primary. If you’re a Democrat, you’re worried about the guy who is active in Organizing for America, who’s out there moving around the grassroots and who’s arguing that you’re not doing enough to fight Republicans. If you’re a Republican, you’re [worried about] the young Republican Tea Party activist who’s going around saying, “We need a fighter, someone who will hold the line on spending and not someone who’s working with those people.” So, it causes both sides to structure their politics in a way that’s very oriented toward their political base.
MB: How did that shift affect the way that you worked together on a day-to-day basis? I’ve read that, say, 40 or 50 years ago, members knew that their friends in Congress would have to go out and say rough stuff about them during campaign season, but that members didn’t take it too personally. Now that things have gotten so much more fiercely partisan, has that willingness to forgive ebbed at all?
AD: You know, when members perceive there’s a political advantage in working across the aisle, it’s very easy for members to build social relationships with people across the aisle. That’s just human nature and it’s good politics. If you believe that you’re going to need to work with this person on your committee to get a bill done, you think it’s in your political interest to do that, and you think that the political process is conducive to a bipartisan bill movement, it makes it a lot easier to spend time chatting with someone across the aisle or to say to a member, “Let’s go and grab lunch,” in the member’s dining room or to run into a member as they’re leaving the floor at eight o’clock at night and say, “Look, I’m starving. Let me go get something to eat.” Typically in the political world, politics drives social relationships and not the other way around. People often form social relationships with people they work with.
So, as the place became more polarizing and there was less space and less interest in things happening on a bipartisan basis, it cut away some of that interest that members have in developing relationships.
In my experience, there’s always a surface cordiality that exists. That was the case in 2010 as much as in 2003. Members regularly run into each other in the airport, on planes, and often sit next to each other, so it’s not uncommon for there to be a level of cordiality. But I did notice that there seemed to be fewer constructive, meaningful relationships across party lines.
And frankly, over the period of time that I was there, I would say that members seemed to develop more of a mindset that their friends were people who are also are in their political caucus, and even often people who thought like they did. You would kind of notice that the Blue Dogs hang out together, that people in the Progressive Caucus hang out together, that the black and Latino members have their relationships. And I suspect the same kind of thing, to some degree, happens on the Republican side. Relationships would form more within your political identity.
I don’t know if that’s a new phenomenon or not, but it was something that was very pronounced about the Democratic caucus that I observed. Sure, you have people who’ve been there for years and built alliances, but as you move toward the newer generation of members, their friendships and alliances tended to be with people who were their year or people who were kind of a similar ideology or people who had a similar political profile, and it became more of a narrow-casting than I think some people would expect.
MB: This insight – that the work drives the social relationships, rather than the other way around – suggests to me that the fractiousness we see in Congress won’t get better until the general political climate becomes more favorable to bipartisanship.
AD: Until the political climate realigns itself in a way that Congress is expected to produce, you’re not going to get a significant difference. Until the political climate realigns itself in a way that voters are demanding action on particular fronts, you’re not going to see much of a change. I often say to people, whatever political outcome happens in 2012, it is very hard to make a case that any of it will produce a significant amount of legislative activity.
Let’s say best case for Democrats, Barack Obama wins by 8-10 points, Democrats retake the House, Democrats strengthen their hold on the Senate. It’s questionable whether anything other than repealing the Bush tax cuts on millionaires would happen. People ask the question: Well, if you have an easy Obama win, Democrats take the House and consolidate their strength in the Senate, what agenda items would move? Well, let’s look at the two years when Democrats controlled the Congress and had a Democratic president. Cap and trade still didn’t move. It’s not likely that that would change.
Let’s say the Republican nominee wins [and] Republicans keep the House and take the Senate. It’s not clear what would happen. There is no single legislative item that you can say with certainty would happen in the first 90 or 120 days or the first year of the kind of Republican alignment I described, because there’s no consensus in either party on the next direction for the country.
There’s consensus in the Democratic ranks about raising taxes on millionaires. There’s consensus in Republican ranks about repealing Obamacare, but no consensus on what to replace it with, no consensus on whether the politics of the moment would permit a straightforward repeal without a replace strategy, no consensus on what the replace vehicle would look like, no consensus on whether elements of the healthcare bill – like the exchanges or pre-existing illness conditions –ought to be included within the Republican reform; there’s vast disagreement over that. So, again, even if Republicans were to get exactly what they want, it is hard to make the case that you would get substantive legislative action.
So, whenever people say that the reason we’re not getting things done in Washington is because there’s political gridlock and if either side breaks the gridlock – well, the reality is that today, there’s so little consensus in either party on what the next steps ought to be that I think you would see very little legislative proactivity regardless of what happens this year.
MB: You mentioned Democrats’ unanimity around the goal of repealing the tax cuts on millionaires. Obviously, that would leave intact the tax cuts in place for everyone else, and that’s what the president has said he favors.
AD: Yeah, there’s unanimity on that. Obviously, that is about the only major policy item today on which I think there is unanimity from the Democrat caucuses.
MB: Let me ask about that in particular. You recently wrote in the National Review that “an Obama sweep would, for the first time in 76 years, institute government-centered, redistributionist economics as the country’s central governing philosophy.” That seems like an awfully big claim. If the Democrats’ ambitions don’t run beyond restoring the tax rates on millionaires to Clinton-era levels, say, and maybe – if they’re lucky – fiddling with capital gains or carried interest, that doesn’t seem like such a wild change.
AD: That’s a fair point, but here’s the difference: most presidents who’ve won election – in fact, I would submit that every President who’s won election in the modern era on the Democratic side – has pretty much won as a centrist, or they’ve won in such a way that their political agenda was muted. When Jack Kennedy won in 1960, he didn’t win as a liberal hero; he won as the guy who was going to deal with the missile gap. Lyndon Johnson in ’64 honestly won as the guy who wasn’t that crazy Barry Goldwater. Jimmy Carter won as the guy who was going to fix Washington and bring honesty in the process and never lie to the American people; that’s not an ideological agenda. Bill Clinton won in ’92 as a nontraditional Democrat who was not going to follow Democrat politics as usual.
Barack Obama won as the guy who was going to turn the page, as the guy who was going to alter the political environment. Barack Obama did not run on the healthcare bill, you know. That was not a major thing that Obama talked about, except for the debates where Hillary pressed him on it. Obama was the last candidate to actually introduce a healthcare proposal—which if you go back and look at what he proposed in ’07, it’s much different from the law as actually enacted.
If Obama were to win this year and if Democrats were to win the House this year, the belief in the Democratic Party would be that that kind of ratified a certified notion of activist government, a certain notion of an agenda that was focused on redistribution, and that would be the governing philosophy within the party. Now, would that philosophy translate into legislative action? For the reasons I mentioned, it’s arguable that it would not – in fact, it’s probable that it would not. But all politics is not about Congress. What the agencies do, what the regulators do, is enormously important. The political mood that’s set is important, and what the courts do is very important.
This is what’s at stake in this election: If Democrats have the kind of sweep that it appears possible that they could have, that would introduce as the dominant political philosophy, a notion of a powerful government-centric approach, a notion of redistribution as an important economic strategy in a way that no previous election really since the 1930’s has done. That is a big deal for Democrats who value that view of the world and it’s a threat for Republicans who don’t value that view of the world. That’s not an ideological point; it’s a description of what we’re facing.
That’s why there’s a lot at stake in this election. This election, more than most, is about ratifying a particular notion of government. That even if the legislative process can’t rise to that notion, there are many other levels of government that can rise to it. It also sets a political mood that will shape state governors’ races. It creates a political mood that will drive politics all across the county and up and down the spectrum.
That’s what makes this election significant for both sides. If Republicans lose this election the way I described, the notion will be that the Republican notion of deregulation, the Republican anti-government notion – the Republican defense, if you will, of the status quo in our economy – the perception will be that that vision and that philosophy was crushed.