- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

As the Angels and the Giants slug it out in America's fall classic, Congress just finished a World Series of its own. Call it "legislative blame ball." Over the past few months, finger-pointing and recriminations flew as long and high as a Barry Bonds homer, but it's unclear whether all the maneuvering will have any political impact on the November elections 12 days from now.

Congressional Democrats, however, should exercise caution playing blame ball with the White House. Throwing bean balls at any president especially this president, given the depth of his popularity could backfire. Democrats could end up looking less like big leaguers and more like the Bad News Bears.

Recently, accusations flowed freely on both sides of the aisle on homeland-security legislation, the bogged-down appropriations process and failure to produce a final energy package. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate also gave major speeches criticizing the president and Republicans for their management of economic issues. Republicans in Congress blamed Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for a host of initiatives, which were passed by the House, that are now languishing in the upper body. And Senate Republicans continued to hammer away on Democrats for stalling the judicial confirmation process.

Is gridlock the political equivalent of a pitcher's duel, or will one side hit an electoral grand slam in the blame game?

Election Day will reveal the real winner, but there is some early evidence the charges and counter charges will have limited impact. If Democrats push too hard, the blame theme could backfire.

Sarah A. Binder of the Brookings Institution and George Washington University argues the electoral impact of gridlock is small. In a paper prepared for the American Political Science Association meetings last month, Ms. Binder investigates the consequences of legislative stalemate over the past 50 years. She concludes, "There is only limited evidence that Congress pays an electoral cost for legislative stalemate," and "voters seem not to let legislative performance systematically shape their choices at election time." The blame game affects the public's perception of Congress as an institution, according to Ms. Binder, but most members can inoculate themselves through the votes they cast or positions they advocate. It's the reason most voters hate Congress but love their congressman.

So why all the finger-pointing?

Political analysts agree that energizing base voters is one reason. When Republican leaders talk about Mr. Daschle blocking key GOP initiatives, party activists listen. Similarly, charges that Republicans stood in the way of key party economic proposals like raising the minimum wage or extending unemployment benefits, motivates Democrat partisans.

Stung by claims that Senate Democrats blocked many House-passed initiatives, Mr. Daschle tried to bring up several bills under unanimous consent over the past two weeks, including additional Medicare funding and pension reform, but was blocked by Republicans. Democrats used this tactic as an inoculation device to counter the obstructionist charge. But only party activists are listening.

Most political strategists agree that prior to the 1998 election, when Republicans forged a brief detente over budgetary wars with the White House, GOP base voters were so disillusioned with their party's deal with President Clinton that they stayed home in droves. Deflating the Republican base and lowering its turnout that year is one of the reasons Mr. Clinton's party defied history and picked up six House seats.

Finally, while congressional infighting doesn't put anyone in electoral harm's way, bickering with the president may have more serious consequences for congressional Democrats.

Congress regardless of which party runs the show never competes effectively with the White House in driving a national message from Capitol Hill. The president's single voice and broad news coverage always trumps multiple messengers and lawmakers' more limited attention by the media. Congressional Republicans learned this lesson trying to compete with President Clinton during the last six years of his term after the GOP won the majority in the House and Senate.

Yet like a baseball team with a strong closer, President Bush holds an additional bat late in this midterm election cycle. As one Republican pollster said: "Shortly after [September 11], the American people made a judgment about President Bush. They concluded he was a good and decent man, trying to do the right thing. These 'judgments' are enduring and difficult to change. And voters don't react positively to attacks on him that appear petty or politically motivated."

Blame ball will persist in American politics, even if it only energizes partisan voters. But Democrats need to focus their attacks on their colleagues in Congress as opposed to Mr. Bush. Attacking the president without a well-articulated alternative agenda may alienate key independent voters and result in a Republican sweep of this year's political World Series.

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