In the mid-Seventies William Rusher, then publisher of National Review, coined the phrase "Yes-But Republicans" to describe the party's delegation in Congress. By that he meant that their refrain was, in relation to the Democrats' agenda, "Yes, but a little less and a little more slowly." By then, the GOP had been the minority in Congress for so long that few could remember when it had last been in the majority.
Indeed, the Democrats were in control for so long that they, the news media, academia and Washington lobbyists had all come to think of this as the natural order of things; God-given (for those who believed in God). Republicans, after all, lacked the moral authority and intellectual capacity to lead -- or so it was thought.
Even after the Republicans took control of the Senate for six years in the Eighties, the general feeling one got from Democrats around the capital city was that things would "get back to normal" before long, and they did. That view was even sharper after the Republican earthquake that upended the House in 1994. The first evidence that the Democrats weren't going to take this affront lying down came in the form of former committee chairmen and others of the old guard complaining of "incivility" in Congress and a mood of "partisanship" not seen before. Translation: It's no fun when you aren't running things. Their idea of bipartisanship, of course, was a permanent and pliant Republican minority.
Now, more than eight years later, the Republicans still control the House, now by 25 votes. In November they regained control of the Senate, kept a majority of the governorships and now control both legislative chambers in more states than do the Democrats.
During the campaign and since then, Democrat candidates and office holders have seemed unable to deal in anything but negatives. It has been years since their party brought forth a Big Idea (was Medicare the last one?). In the recent election none of their candidates brought forth any proposals with which to counter the Bush agenda. They were wholly reactive. They tried to scare seniors over Social Security, to no avail. Some tried to get to Bush's right over homeland security, i.e., that he wasn't "doing enough." They seemed intent on proving that you can't beat something with nothing, and most voters agreed.
Now, with the 108th Congress about to convene, the signs are everywhere that the Democrats are continuing their slide into minority-party status, for their rhetoric is wholly negative:
• House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi trots out hoary class warfare rhetoric. She complains that eliminating double taxation of dividends will benefit "the rich" when tax relief should benefit the middle class. She seems unaware that most everyone in the middle class owns stocks, bonds and other investments these days and would welcome a little relief from taxation of their nest eggs. But, what the heck, if class warfare worked in FDR's time, it oughta work now, right?
• Speaking with one voice, as if scripted, various Democrat leaders have been complaining -- with straight faces -- that Republicans/conservatives really do control the news media in the U.S. The New York Times, a volunteer house organ for the Democrats, in a recent article gave front page space to the lamentations of party operatives that they lacked popular messengers such as Rush Limbaugh and talk radio shows. Fox News Channel, which sedulously balances its panel shows, is envied because its audience grew by 36 percent last year, while CNN and MSNBC lost viewers. One Democrat complained that his party had the "right" message but lacked the "right" messenger. Mario Cuomo tried a talk show. It was about as popular as a lecture on the benefits of cod liver oil.
• The growing field of would-be presidents among the Democrats has yet to produce a single idea -- and John Edwards's desire to represent "regular" people doesn't count as an idea. Neither do Dick Gephardt's and John Kerry's sonorous declarations about Bush's policies being "wrong."
Both Congressional Democrats and presidential aspirants are frozen in a posture of crabbing about Republican initiatives at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, without offering anything of substance themselves. They are beginning to look like the mirror image of those "Yes-But" Republicans of the Seventies, tired and resigned to minority status. Often the Democrat "yes, but" is "Yes, but a little more and, yes, but a little faster," since they like an ever-growing government, but it is still "yes, but."