While Republican vultures hover shamelessly over the hospital where Sen. Tim Johnson, the South Dakota Democrat remains in critical condition following emergency brain surgery, progressives are in a lather worrying that if Johnson doesn't recover, or if he dies, South Dakota's Republican governor would appoint a Republican to finish out his term, handing control of the U.S. Senate back to the just ousted Republican Party.
There were fears of the same possible outcome back in early November, when pseudo-Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), defeated in an August primary for his party's nomination, succeeded in winning re-election running as an independent. It was feared-and to some extent is still feared-that Lieberman could jump over to the GOP in January, handing Republicans control of the Senate. Lieberman has played this fear like a virtuoso violinist, wresting a promise that he will chair the Homeland Security Committee in the 110th Congress if he stays in the party fold.
Progressives should take a deep breath and relax, though. The truth is, all this angst is really just about Democratic Senators looking to maintain their own newfound power and their own marketability to the big donors who they hope will fill their campaign coffers. If they lose control of the Senate, and don't get to chair all those committees and subcommittees, they don't get the big bucks.
But from a policy standpoint, it matters little whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate-at least these days. In fact, not to wish ill to Sen. Johnson, but we might be better off if the Democrats ended up back in the role of opposition.
With a majority of one, and a Republican president, the Senate cannot hope to pass any kind of significant legislation. If Senate Democrats somehow managed to pass something like a minimum wage bill on their own, it would just get vetoed by the president. Of course, they could try to win over enough liberal Republicans to pass veto-proof legislation, but then, they could do that whether they were in the majority or the minority.
A Democratic-run Senate could do investigations of course, but given the infamous timidity of the party's Senate leadership, it seems unlikely that they will do anything substantial in that regard anyhow. And besides, the House, where the Democratic majority is more solid, can handle the investigation business better.
In control of the Senate, Democrats will simply open themselves to charges, in the 2008 campaign, of being obstructionist and negative, because they won't be able to accomplish anything of substance. In opposition, they would be in a powerful position, with 50 votes, to block any bad Republican legislation or bad nominations to judgeships or government offices, but because they would be in the position of opposition party, no one would blame them for being obstructionist-opposition and obstruction would be their official role.
More important, in the role of opposition party, Democratic Senators would be freer to be themselves. There would be far less pressure from corporate interests to temper their views and to move to the center or to the right than they are getting now as the ruling party.
The point is, it's one thing to have a majority of one in the legislature when your president is of the same party, but it's another when you have a one-vote majority and the president is from the other party. In the latter case, the opposition party, despite being in control, is incapable of accomplishing anything over the president's opposition, and thus the pressure to compromise becomes almost irresistible. And Democrats, with little in the way of ideological grounding, have long been all too ready to compromise away important issues and principles and to play footsie with the president. Just look at them signing on to a continued war in Iraq, with even more troops. Look at them refusing to defend habeas corpus and to oppose torture. Look at them calling for even bigger defense budgets. Look at them signing on to the NSA's warrantless spying operation. (Incidentally, Sen. Johnson himself has been quite the backer of Republican positions, voting for the Republican budget in 1998, supporting a flag-desecration amendment to the Constitution, voting in support of eased restrictions on cell phone tapping, voting in favor of tightening consumer bankruptcy laws, and voting to expand the death penalty and to limit habeas rights of death penalty prisoners. Johnson has been one of Bush's most ardent backers of the Iraq war among Democrats, and has been a big recipient of funds from Parsons Corp., one of the biggest corporate war profiteers in Iraq after Halliburton.)
We're not going to see Democratic Senators taking principled stands on progressive issues until they know that they are stuck in the role of opposition party.
So let's wish Sen. Johnson a speedy recovery, but progressives needn't fret if he has to step down.
We might be better off that way.