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Richard Cohen

Where Are the Democrats?

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page A19

Rep. Tom DeLay is called "The Hammer." He is a man of fierce beliefs who has long confused politics with war -- religious war at that. At one time he would have been labeled an "extremist," the sort of politician whom reporters seek out for colorful, wacko quotes. But now he is in the GOP mainstream where, among other things, he has bludgeoned the Democratic Party into pathetic meekness. On the Terri Schiavo debate, the party went AWOL.

By late Sunday, when the debate had reached the House of Representatives, Barney Frank stood almost alone in opposing the bill. Cliches suffered. Here was an openly gay Democrat, the Massachusetts liberal of all Massachusetts liberals, defending the Founding Fathers, federalism and the American tradition of keeping the government's nose out of a family's business.

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It was a bravura performance and one could only have wished that it had been matched by John Kerry or Hillary Clinton -- or any of the other Democrats who are being mentioned as presidential candidates. Most of them seemed to be cowering in some bunker, calling their consultants and pollsters, asking what they should do and how they should do it. Please, have a memo on the desk by morning.

You could call this a misreading of public sentiment, and it is that, for sure. When the instant pollsters reported on their instant polls, it turned out that by lopsided majorities the public was appalled at what Congress had done. By a margin of 63 percent to 28 percent, an ABC News poll said Americans supported the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. An even larger majority -- 70 percent -- opposed Congress getting into the act. And for some reason, 67 percent of those polled said Congress was more interested in scoring political points than in Terry Schiavo's fate. As they say in the red states, amen to that.

Given those numbers, it would be reasonable to conclude that Republicans -- the congressional leadership and, of course, the White House -- went barking up the wrong political tree. No doubt. What's more, it's not even clear that the GOP solidified its base. Conservative Christians were probably gratified, but many political conservatives were appalled. These are the people who cherish tradition and hold the Constitution dear. When Congress -- without a committee hearing or much real debate -- pushed the Schiavo matter from Florida court jurisdiction, where it had been decided, to a federal one, you could almost hear conservatives gasp. This, after all, is what they had been lambasting liberals about for years.

But for me the real loser was the Democratic Party. It showed that it's almost totally without leadership. If there is a national figure (other than Frank) who stood up and took on the GOP in this matter, his -- or her -- name does not come to mind. In the Senate, oddly enough, it was Virginia's John Warner who pointed out that he opposed the bill -- and he's a Republican, for goodness' sake. The Democrats were nowhere.

It's not hard to understand why. A vote against the bill would almost certainly be used by some future campaign as a vote in favor of putting Schiavo to death. In a quick TV spot, that sort of stuff can do real damage. At the same time, a fair number of Democrats who were appalled by the bill were reluctant to put their colleagues on the spot. It might have been okay for Ted Kennedy or John Kerry to oppose the bill -- they come from Massachusetts, after all -- but it could be a different story for some Democrat whose state is not quite so blue. Out of consideration for the imperiled, some tongues were clearly held. Still, it seemed that the party's highest principle was to have almost none at all.

Once again, it was a Republican -- Christopher Shays of Connecticut -- who got it right. "This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy," he said. Bingo! It is DeLay and the Christian right that set the agenda for the Republican Party and, therefore, for Congress. It is DeLay, whose religious zealotry prompted him to leap all sorts of constitutional barriers and go court-shopping, who, have no doubt about it, would reshape this country in his religious image.

Say what you will about DeLay, he is not afraid to state his beliefs and fight for them. Say what you will about the Democrats, they are. That's why DeLay's called "The Hammer." What would you call the Democrats? Never mind. When they're ready, they'll call you.


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