Vetoes Clarify Issues, Strengthen the Party

Oregon Democrats did not suffer the drubbing that the party took nationwide on Tuesday. In fact, Democrats could find a silver lining in this week’s red horizon if they look at Oregon’s recent political history.

“The scene in Salem isn’t going to change much,” lobbyist Doug Barber told me over lunch on Wednesday. “Democrats are likely to pick up a seat or two in each chamber. Incumbents had a good year — especially Democrats.”

That includes our incumbentest chief executive ever, with Democrat John Kitzhaber heading into his fourth term as governor.

Our delegation to Washington, D.C. likewise will be unchanged. None of those races ended up being particularly close either. Rep. Peter DeFazio has endured a sequel to his own version of “Groundhog Day,” defeating challenger Art Robinson again, again. And Sen. Jeff Merkley’s race ended up offering much ado about nothing, once the Koch brothers lost interest in his opponent.

U.S.S. Oregon is “steady as she goes” in the turbulent waters of voter disaffection that capsized Democrats all across the nation.

If the scene in our state capital won’t be changing much, quite the opposite will be true in the nation’s capital. President Obama will have to learn how to use his veto power. His best tutor would be Governor Kitzhaber.

Obama has so far vetoed fewer bills than any full-term president since Millard Fillmore — only two, and both for technical reasons. In fact, if you want to lay blame for this week’s Democratic losses, you can point to the president’s collusion with now-outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Reid refused to schedule votes for any bills that the White House didn’t want to sign. This gave Democrats the appearance of a united front against Republicans, which became the club the challengers used to pummel the incumbents.

In state after state, the attack lines were the same. “My opponent has voted with Barack Obama 98 percent of the time….” That argument could be made effectively and universally only because the votes were few and so, united.

This is not how federal governance is supposed to work. Senators and Representatives are sent to Washington to look out for their citizens’ best interests — not what is expedient for their political party’s leaders.

Vetoes shine a light that backroom bottlenecks cannot. The nightly news seldom leads with what didn’t happen that day, so Reid’s refusals went unnoticed by most Americans. Vetoes will attract more attention — and that might be good for Democrats.

Kitzhaber can show Obama how it’s done. He vetoed so many bills during his first two terms as governor in the 1990s that he earned the nickname “Dr. No” — but notice what has happened since.

Kitzhaber’s veto binge clarified issues for Oregon voters. Republican legislators voted for bills and the Democratic governor refused to sign 200 of them, often with a news conference explaining why. Republicans have not won a single executive branch office or controlled either legislative chamber in Salem since.

Only the chief executive can claim to be speaking to and for all voters. Legislators will and should compete with one another for their piece of the pie, but the whole pie is the purview of the president or governor.

If Obama can learn to veto legislation as effectively as Kitzhaber did, Democrats may see his last two years as more consequential than his first six.

Obama must speak clearly, briefly and often about why he’s refusing to sign into law various items on his opponents’ agenda. He also must accept that occasionally an otherwise loyal lawmaker may break ranks to represent his or her constituents. Some of his vetoes may even gather the two-thirds majority necessary to become law without his signature.

Democratic leadership has resisted this scenario because they believe it makes the president look weak. Kitzhaber has shown there is life after vetoes, for the politician and especially for his party.

Voters deserve a better understanding of what each party stands for. Vetoes are good for that. President Fillmore refused to use his veto power. And no one ever heard from the Whigs again.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs