George Will: Iceberg looms on the horizon for Democrats

Published: Sunday, Nov. 7 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — When Alexander Pope was on his deathbed, his doctor assured him that his breathing, pulse and other vital signs were improving. "Here I am," Pope said to a friend, "dying of a hundred good symptoms."

Some Democrats read the election returns as symptoms of health because things could have been worse: "Happily, we have leprosy, not cholera." But embracing the fallacy of false alternatives is not a step toward recuperation. Neither is continuing the attitude Democrats adopted when passing Obamacare and that foretold their unhappy election: "No compromise with the voters!"

For the second time in 24 months, Barack Obama has been at the epicenter of a historic election, this time with voters reconsidering the first one. For the third time in four years, they have emphatically complained. Democrats gained a total of 54 House seats in 2006 and 2008, but after Tuesday are in a net deficit over the last three cycles.

On Oct. 1, Nancy Pelosi, referring to Republicans, said, "I would rather be where we are than where they are." Now she is where they were — in the minority in the House. The Democrats' House caucus will be smaller and more homogenously liberal. Their Senate caucus will be leavened by one freshman who got there by strongly criticizing the defining aspects of Obama's agenda (Joe Manchin of West Virginia) and another who endorsed an important part of George W. Bush's (Chris Coons of Delaware, who endorsed extension of all the Bush tax cuts).

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had 40 or 41 senators in his caucus, he usually had 40 or 41 votes when he felt he urgently needed them. Beginning in January, with at least 46 senators, he will always have 41 votes when he really wants them.

So, speculation about whether Obama will "change course" is surreal. Whether or not he adheres to his agenda of relentless expansion of government (e.g., cap-and-trade) and promiscuous rewards for Democratic constituencies (e.g., trying to stimulate the economy with trickle-down government spending that sustains unionized public employees), remember: The iceberg was indifferent to the Titanic's course. And now, possessing House committee gavels and subpoena power, Republican chairmen will be able to limit Obama's ability to use the "permanent government" — the bureaucracy — to accomplish through regulation what he cannot achieve through legislation.

Congressional supremacy was the Framers' preference and expectation: The Constitution's Article I concerns the legislative branch. As Georgetown University's George Carey notes, the Framers "regarded Congress as the mainspring of the constitutional system." It "possesses virtually all the powers delegated to the national government" and "can 'discipline' the other branches through its impeachment and removal powers." But the protean power of the modern presidency, combined with Congress' often invertebrate nature, means that, as John Boehner said Tuesday, "It's the president who sets the agenda for our government."

Synthetic indignation is to Washington what steel once was to Pittsburgh — the city's defining commodity — so there was theatrical disapproval when McConnell said "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Presidential supremacy makes this any opposition's priority. And what do the indignant think Obama considers the single most important thing he wants to achieve, if not a second term?

National Democrats' desperate attempts to defeat Marco Rubio in Florida's Senate race culminated in their Clintonian dissembling about their attempts to force their party's nominee to leave the race and support the independent candidacy of Plasticman, aka Gov. Charlie Crist. This maneuver reprised Democratic fury against Clarence Thomas 19 years ago. Back then, an African-American conservative was an affront to the Democratic Party's sense of entitlement regarding African-Americans' support. Today, two Hispanic Republicans — Rubio and Gov.-elect Susana Martinez of New Mexico — threaten Democratic hopes for similar sway over America's largest and fastest-growing minority.

Finally, give a thought to a subject almost no one has wanted to talk about this autumn. The nation is in the 10th year of its longest war and in what has been for American forces the deadliest year of that war. Do not assume that all freshman Republicans will support the current strategy and objectives — whatever they are — in Afghanistan.

The flavorful ingredients in the simmering stew that is the tea party impulse include a dash of the foreign policy skepticism associated with the Robert Taft tradition of conservatism. The Ohio senator died in 1953; the need for his prudence did not.

George Will is a Washington Post columnist. E-mail address: gorgewill@washpost.com

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