- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Rarely has an opposition party faced a less predictable election-year political landscape two years out than do the Democrats right now. Will President Bush emerge triumphant or humiliated from our Iraq confrontation and North Korea imbroglio? Will the economy be surging forward or contracting in the summer of 2004? Will terror and death have struck our land again, and if it does, will the public rally to Mr. Bush or blame him? Of course, the future is always unknowable, but rarely has the range of plausible scenarios been so wide and their potential effects on the daily lives of Americans so central.
Yet, it is at precisely this moment of high doubt that the Democratic Party both its congressional delegations and its presidential aspirants is obliged to disclose to the public the tone and attitude it will take in opposition to Mr. Bush. With the exception of Sen. Joe Lieberman, the other Democratic leaders are coming out with their partisan teeth conspicuously bared. In this winter intermezzo, between last year's elections and the dramatic events that are soon to come, it appears that the Democrats have chosen their public image for the future on the basis of what they judge to be their tactical mistakes during the recent elections.
The Democrats concluded that they lost November's elections because they were not tough enough on Mr. Bush. They believe that they failed to vividly display their deep philosophical differences with the president. They are convinced that Mr. Bush turned ruthlessly partisan against them last fall, while they remained passive, respectful and cooperative. Thus, they are determined to be more confrontational, partisan and liberal for the 2004 election cycle. While I suspect this is a misdiagnosis, it is nonetheless the one on which they have settled.
We already see this in the Senate, where the Democrats have spent a week threatening to filibuster even the routine organizing of the 108th Congress, thus stymieing the Republican majority from even making committee assignments and starting the Senate business for the year. Sen. Hillary Clinton broke an agreement that she had made privately with the Republicans to introduce a consensus unemployment insurance bill, just so the Democrats could embarrass the Republican's new majority leader, Bill Frist, during his first moments as Senate leader. They are threatening to break recent precedent and filibuster judicial nominations. Because they believe they paid a heavy electoral price as the majority Senate party last year for failing to pass necessary legislation, they intend to turn the floor of the Senate into a killing field for almost the entire Republican legislative agenda for 2003-04.
The gentlemanly Republican leader, Sen. Frist, has chosen not to publicly complain of these hyper-partisan Democratic maneuvers in the opening week of the session. But, while good manners should always be adhered to, mere good manners will not save the day. Even a gentleman may use bare (or brass) knuckles when he is being hit below the belt. Make no mistake about it, the Democrats plan to show the country that Mr. Bush and the Republican congressional majorities are incapable of governing. The majority, not the opposition, always pay the price of failure, they believe.
There is precedent for that theory. In 1994, the Republican congressional minority caucuses in the House and the Senate were able to block most of President Clinton's agenda, such as open homosexuals in the military, Hillary's health care and a soft-on-crime bill. The Republicans then went on to take back the House and Senate in the 1994 November elections. But this principle of the majority paying the price with the voters doesn't always apply. It depends on the issues and the personalities involved. For instance, in 1995-96, the congressional Republicans refused to agree to Mr. Clinton's spending levels, resulting in the shutdown of the government for several days. But Mr. Clinton did not pay the price. The public thought the Republicans were wrong on the issues and they liked Mr. Clinton personally more than they liked Newt Gingrich. Mr. Clinton handily won re-election in 1996.
So, the Democrats today are betting that the public will agree with them a year-and-a-half from now that they were right to block or oppose Mr. Bush's tax cuts and his muscular and assertive defense of our national security. That looks like a bad bet today. It could look like a spectacularly bad bet should we gain victory in Iraq and should the economy recover by the summer of 2004. But the Democrats are so completely in the thrall of their misdiagnosis of last years' election results that they may not even realize they are placing a bet at all.


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