Sunday, November 26, 2006

Viva Vermont and Sayonara Santorum

Though I’m not a Democrat, I was elated by the results of last week’s midterm elections. It was fun, after six years of disaster, to experience an election where the results just kept on getting better. In some cases, I was excited to see particular individuals elected to office, like Vermont Senator-elect Bernie Sanders, Progressive Representative-elect Susan Hatch Davis in the often conservative state house district where I work, and soon-to-be governors Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and Eliot Spitzer in New York. I was also glad that Vermont’s Progressive candidate for auditor, Martha Abbott, an out lesbian, earned nearly 10% of the vote in that race.

In other races, I was delighted to see the change of party not out of interest in a particular candidate, but because of what the change represents. I’m glad Vermont’s House seat was won by a Democrat. I’m glad that Republicans in Ohio lost races for governor, secretary of state, and U.S. Senate. It’ll be tricky for Republicans to steal another presidential election there in 2008. I was surprised but impressed to see neighboring New Hampshire elect Democrats to both its U.S. House seats. And most of all, I was delighted to see Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, disparager of all things homosexual (see quotes below), go down to overwhelming defeat.

So, what can the Democrats in Congress learn from Vermont’s experience with divided government over the last two years?

In 2004, Democrats managed to win back control of the state House of Representatives after losing it in the 2000 backlash against civil unions. After the last election, they had a coalition with six Progressives and an independent that gave them a 90-60 advantage. Health care was at the top of the agenda. Unfortunately, the house and state Senate, with a 21-9 Democratic majority, brought forth little in terms of aggressive solutions to health care funding. To some extent, this was thanks to Republican Governor Jim Douglas, a darling of all private insurance companies. Some of this, however, was to an excessive emphasis on bi-partisanship on the part of legislative Democrats.

For instance, Vermont Democrats could have pressed for true health care reform legislation and forced the governor to veto a bill that provided health care to everyone, a veto that might have played badly this election season and helped his would-be successor Democrat Scudder Parker. In the arm wrestle of politics, however, Governor Douglas twisted the hand of the Democrats this way and that—and Democrats continued to bend and bend—until the legislature passed a much watered-down extension of benefits that did little to change the deeply flawed structure of health care provision we experience in the U.S. In the end, no one really believed that Democrats achieved their purported victory of extending benefits, and the governor benefited from not having to face questions about his blockade of health care reform. The Democrats lost their top issue and the governor coasted to reelection.

After this year’s elections in Vermont, Democrats have managed to extend their control of both chambers to 23-7 in the Senate and 101-49 (with six Progressives and two likely independent allies) in the House. These numbers could provide a two-thirds supermajority that could override a gubernatorial veto on a variety of issues, including legislation relating to health care, education finance, property taxes, and more; but Gaye Symington, Speaker of the House, has already signaled a lack of willingness to attempt to legislate by veto override. I would warn her and legislative Democrats that they have been elected in overwhelming numbers, and they need to take some risks in the next session; this tremendous support for them could quickly end if they are seen as lacking the ability to follow through on the sorts of legislation they were elected to implement.

With the U.S. Congress moving into Democratic control, I am hopeful that the leadership there will do more than their counterparts in Vermont. In Vermont, Governor Douglas was only presented with two bills controversial enough to require his veto. I would say to legislative leaders on both levels, give your executives something to veto. Do your best to set the terms of a new agenda. Show us what you stand for.

Nifty Santorum quotes

“[I have] a problem with homosexual acts, as I would with what I would consider to be acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships . . . if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.” –Rick Santorum on gay sex, AP interview

“In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality.” –Rick Santorum, AP interview