There's a tremendous amount of despair about how badly the Democratic leadership screwed up on the FISA vote, which parallels a lot of the anger around the supplemental and other poor choices Democratic representatives have made. As an anecdotal example, I went out to dinner with a Congressional candidate at Yearlykos, and our cool punk waiter overheard our conversation and randomly told us that he's a hardcore anti-Republican. He then followed on that he doesn't think that 2006 made any difference.
After hearing this from a variety of quarters, I decided to go over the numbers and candidates and see whether that election really mattered, and how much our involvement specifically mattered. First I began poking around, to see how the freshmen we elected in 2006 voted. Most of them did pretty well, but 11 new members voted poorly in the House, and 4 freshmen voted poorly in the Senate. Of those, only Tim Walz and Chris Carney in the House and Jim Webb in the Senate drew support from the internet, which I'm using as a proxy for the progressive movement's newest and freshest piece. Mostly, our newly elected people voted correctly, and those that didn't were DCCC, DSCC, and single issue group creations (like those three reactionaries in Indiana). But in looking at these numbers, I discovered something quite stunning. To my surprise, the power of progressives in the House and Senate has risen dramatically since 2002, and the reason is not because of the change in partisan balance in 2006 but because of a gradual conversion of conservative Democrats to progressive Democrats.
The shift that Chris noted - the Democratic base mattering more than independents and Republicans in 2006 - has had HUGE effects within the party that equal or exceed those effects in the partisan balance at large.
To understand where we were as a party prior to 2006, I started my examination by trying to find an equivalent vote to the FISA vote that happened last week from a previous Congress. I wanted a vote where national security was key, where pressure was high, and where Democrats would have a strong incentive to crumple. I went back to the nadir of the Democratic Party's history, the October 2002 war vote. While the vote was a black mark on our party's history, the majority of Democrats actually voted against authorizing the use of force. In the Senate, the vote was 77-23, in the House, the vote was 296-133. 29 Democratic Senators voted yes, 22 voted no, while House 81 Democrats voted yes and 126 voted no. In all honestly, back then it was a pretty awful party, with almost no progressive power base whatsoever.
So where are we today? Well, Kos has a list of all the members who voted to grant Bush expanded wiretapping powers, which is roughly equivalent in both political optics and ideological meaning to the war vote. The passage in the House was 227-183, and 60-28 in the Senate. While it was a horrible vote and leadership was playing procedural games, as a vote-counter, that's a significant shift from earlier Congressional caucuses.
In 2002, we had 133 reliable liberal votes in the Democratic caucus. Today, we have 183 reliable liberal votes, an increase of 50 votes. So where did these votes come from? We picked up 30 seats in 2006 from a straight party line shift, but 11 of these Democrats voted wrongly on FISA. That means that 19 votes came from a shift from Republicans to Democrats, and 31 votes came from shifting conservative Democratic votes to progressive Democratic votes. Partially that was replacing open seat conservatives like Harold Ford with people like Steve Cohen, and partially that was primary pressures on members like Ellen Tauscher and Al Wynn. Perhaps some of this change came from members changing their mind. I don't know, but this is a question to explore further.
While we've made arguments about how we're just about winning and about getting more Democrats elected, the evidence suggests that in the House, we're more about progressive power building and party reformation than changing the partisan balance. Partisanship represents less than 40% of the voting behavioral changes in the House, at least when you compare the recent FISA capitulation versus the war vote. That only 19 vote shifts out of 50 came from a partisan shift, and 31 came from an internal party shift, is simply an amazing statistic.
This tendency is true in the Senate as well. In that body, we've moved from 22 reliable liberal votes in 2002 to between 30-34 reliable liberal votes today. The partisan balance hasn't shifted at all in that time; in October 2002, we had 51 Democratic caucus members, and today we have 51 Democratic caucus members. The caucus has become markedly more liberal, despite making no overall partisan gains against Republicans in the last five years. Once again, changed voting behavior is more due to a changed Democratic Party representation rather than a shift in the number of Democrats in office. Sure, we have defeated people like George Allen, but the real change is replacing people like Bob Torricelli with people like Bob Menendez, or John Breaux with Jon Tester.
Strangely enough, this has not been matched by increased membership or clout in the progressive caucus. The Progressive Caucus today has 72 members, while in 2002, it had 60 members. That means that the 50 seat upwards swing in progressive power is almost entirely outside the Progressive Caucus itself. Whatever the caucus might be doing, it is probably not effectively representing effectively how much progressive power exists within the House or the political system at large. Conversely, the Blue Dogs and (to a much less extent) New Democrats are preening around, proud of their clout and ability to move Congress to a working majority for Bush and the Republicans. While this clout is real, it masks the underlying slow death of their political base.
In going over this data, I've been reminded of just how far we've come over the last four years within the party itself. In 2002, the Naderite argument made some sense. The Democratic Party was genuinely awful, as the majority of Senators voted for an immoral and stupid war and House electoral leaders urged candidates to take the war off the table in 2002 and focus on snowmobiles. Today, not only has the party's base grown, intensified and increased its participation, but the party elites have moved much further to the left to go along with that shift than I had realized, rebuffing and embarrassing Democratic leaders on trade, telecom, energy, and the war in Iraq. In fact, most of the progress we've made has to do with changing internal party dynamics, even though reactionary Democrats still control our candidate recruitment, media consulting industry, and electoral machinery. It is not an exaggeration to say that progressives and conservatives within the Democratic Party were nearly evenly matched in 2002, but that progressives have simply overwhelmed the establishment since then. FISA certainly was a defeat, and a bad one. But the progress we've made in the last four years is simply stunning, and will soon lead us to a place where Nancy Pelosi can truly lead the House.
This is very promising, and I'll have a follow-up post on this phenomenon soon.