By JOHN FUND
It took Democrats in the House of Representatives 40 years to become out-of-touch enough to get thrown out of office in 1994. It took 12 years for the Republicans who replaced them to abandon their principles and be repudiated in 2006. Now it appears that the current Democratic majority has lost voter confidence in only four years.
How did this happen? And what does the increasing speed of voter backlash mean for Republicans who will likely take control next Tuesday?
For answers, I decided to chat up Rep. Brian Baird, a six-term Democrat from Washington state. Even though he's never won re-election with less than 56% of the vote, Mr. Baird is retiring because the brutal congressional commute makes it impossible for him to see his twin five-year-old boys grow up. He's not sticking around, like so many former members of Congress, to lobby inside the Beltway. That allows him to be candid about Congress and his party.
"It's been an authoritarian, closed leadership. That style plus a general groupthink mentality didn't work when Tom DeLay called the shots," Mr. Baird says. "We've made some of the same damn mistakes, and we were supposed to be better. That's the heartbreak."
Mr. Baird, 54, is a loyal Democrat who voted for all of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's legislative priorities, including the stimulus bill, cap and trade and ObamaCare. But he admits all three have serious flaws.
Mr. Baird recalls that he was "very excited" when his party took control of Congress in 2006, but he saw ominous signs early on. Before the 2006 election, he says, Mrs. Pelosi had 30 members working on a rules package to make the House more ethical and deliberative. "We abandoned all that work after the election, and leaders told us we should trust them to clean things up. I don't know a single member of the Democratic caucus who saw the final rules package before they voted on it."
Democrats also watered down efforts to practice fiscal responsibility. "We initially had numbers a bit more honest than the Republicans—we at least included war costs in the budget," he says. "Now we're authorizing programs for three years instead of five in an attempt to pretend we're saving money."
When President Obama was elected in 2008, Mr. Baird was again optimistic that Democrats could bring real reform. But fierce Republican partisanship and the White House decision not to focus on job creation as its "number one, two and three" priority dashed that hope.
"Obama decided we weren't going to have a highway transportation bill because it might have required a gas tax increase," he recalls. After passing a misdirected stimulus bill, Mr. Obama made the fatal error of pushing forward with other priorities: cap and trade, financial services reform, ObamaCare. Each became compromised quickly.
"You don't get real reform by pandering to every special interest. With cap and trade we wound up with a bill that didn't accomplish much, was enormously complicated and expensive." Mr. Baird is especially upset that "good solid members will lose this fall because they took a tough vote for a cap-and-trade bill that never made it through the Senate." He has told environmental groups that they lost sight of the goal of reducing carbon emissions by focusing on the minutia of regulation to achieve it.
For some of the shortcomings of financial regulatory reform, Mr. Baird blames the disillusioning battle over ObamaCare. "When the House had to pass the Senate version of health care unchanged, some members asked why should they invest the mental effort in mastering the details" of financial reform. Mr. Baird found parts of the bill mind-numbing.
Although he voted for it, he says he was troubled that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the entities at the heart of the housing meltdown, weren't addressed. They have clearly exercised undue influence on Capitol Hill, he notes. "When I was first elected I was puzzled why they were holding events in my honor as a mere freshman. I asked myself, why is a federal entity so involved in political activity?"
Regarding health care, his specialty, Mr. Baird gave House Democrats real heartburn. He voted against the first version of ObamaCare in November 2009, because the Congressional Budget Office and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hadn't yet analyzed the bill's impact on insurance premiums and medical costs.
"What the hell were we doing voting on this? I had labor groups come to me and insist the bill was so important we couldn't wait to know what was in it," he recalls. "I asked them if they were handed a new union contract and told it was so important they had to agree to it without reading it, would they go along?" They continued to insist he vote for the bill and threatened him with a primary challenger.
Mr. Baird had developed his own health-care proposal that drew on his 23 years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist treating patients with cancer and brain injuries. His plan would have provided universal health care but held down costs through vouchers for the poor, medical savings accounts for the middle class, and reform of malpractice insurance.
He admits to being frustrated that ideas like his never got a fair hearing in a Congress dominated by inertia and interest groups. "Our problems are now so grave we can't afford petty partisanship and closed thinking," he tells me.
The health-care bill experience spurred Mr. Baird to push harder for a "72-hour rule" that would require all non-emergency legislation to be posted online, in final form, for at least 72 hours before a floor vote. "Members are too often asked to make decisions on bills that can be longer than telephone books, and are given only a few hours to actually read them," he complains. "Both parties are guilty, and both should stop doing it."
Mrs. Pelosi eventually allowed a 72-hour pause before the final passage of ObamaCare, and Mr. Baird is pleased that Republicans have agreed to adopt the 72-hour rule if they take the House majority. He just hopes they honor it even when it's inconvenient.
Mr. Baird stands by his vote for ObamaCare, noting that something had to be done for those denied insurance due to pre-existing conditions. But he acknowledges that the bill carried within it the seeds of its unpopularity. These include the nightmare mandate that all companies report to the IRS all of their business-to-business transactions over $600, so the government can capture unreported business income. At a recent forum with small business owners in his district, Mr. Baird was stunned at the complexity of the rules they now must follow.
"I warned my fellow Democrats that the insurance companies they were whacking could increase premiums just before the midterm election and blame them for it," he sighs. "I pointed out that the major benefits wouldn't kick in till 2014, but the costs were up front. I asked them, where was the political win? There was no real answer."
In his new book, "Character, Politics and Responsibility," Mr. Baird argues that in order to afford caring for the needy, liberals will have to challenge "unsustainable entitlements." "I would eliminate the concept of entitlements and move to needs-based social insurance," he says. "The key is to both promote personal responsibility while lowering expenditures by not promising or giving money or other benefits to those who don't need it."
Although Mr. Baird believes that Republicans blocked compromise on ObamaCare and that tea party activists raised false fears, he acknowledges the political harm that Democrats have done themselves. "It looks like we're going to lose the House, possibly badly, and could lose the Senate," Mr. Baird laments. "We will lose a lot of centrists while the people in the party some voters are most mad at survive in safe districts."
"A lot of rethinking is needed" after Democrats take their drubbing, Mr. Baird says, especially since he anticipates "a huge number of retirements" from Democrats unwilling to serve in the minority. He proposes that the House elect an independent speaker who would help drain partisanship from the body. Britain's House of Commons uses such a model.
Democrats, he says, will also have to recognize why they lost touch with voters. "Back in September, we had pollsters and strategists from my party tell members that the mass of people didn't care about the deficit. The mind-boggling lack of reality coming from some of the people who give us so-called advice is stunning."
I ask Mr. Baird what he would tell the incoming class of freshmen Republicans if given the chance to address them before the new Congress convenes. He summarized his bottom line:
"Governing isn't as easy as you think. Many of you have taken pledges that are contradictory—to balance the budget and cut taxes, for example. You must be honest about the numbers, since our annual deficit now exceeds all discretionary spending combined. If you set as your goal to roll back the size of government, you have an obligation to answer the tough questions and show real courage, not just appeal to ideology. Treat the voters like adults."