A GOP Plan to 'Fix' the Democrats

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The stakes in politics are about to get a lot higher.

The partisan battles in the coming weeks -- on judges, Social Security and the future of Tom DeLay -- are part of a larger struggle in which Republicans are seeking to establish themselves as the dominant party in American politics. Essential to their quest is persuading Democrats, or at least a significant number in their ranks, to accept long-term minority status.

The current acrimony in politics is incomprehensible unless it is understood as the inevitable next act of a long-term struggle. Its ferocity arises from the Democrats' refusal to accept the role assigned them by their opponents. They are taking a stand across a broad front not simply to "obstruct" current GOP designs but to reverse a Republican political offensive that began during Bill Clinton's presidency.

In fact, every one of today's fights can be seen as a response to something that happened in the 1990s.

Democrats in the Senate insist on their right to stop some of President Bush's judges because Republicans were so aggressive in stopping Clinton judges in the '90s.

Privately, Senate Democrats are especially furious that Republicans have completely reversed their position on whether there is even a need for more federal judicial appointments. During the Clinton administration, many Republican senators insisted that there were too many federal judges and that it was therefore unnecessary for the president to fill all the vacancies that came up at the time. Republicans changed their story after President Bush's election, talking about a "vacancy crisis." Democrats are dug in on judges precisely because they do not want to reward Republican obstruction in the 1990s. The theory is that one wave of obstruction deserves -- even demands -- another.

In refusing to deal with Bush on Social Security privatization, Democrats recall the battle over Clinton's health care plan. While a few moderate Republicans, notably the late Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, were willing to bargain with Clinton, the party as a whole put up a front of opposition. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich made it a matter of party discipline to bar anyone in his caucus from negotiating with the Democrats.

Now that Republicans are in control of the presidency and both houses, Democrats -- even moderates who might otherwise favor modest Social Security changes -- see no reason to help Republicans dismantle any aspect of a program that is central to the Democratic legacy. They note (sometimes with grudging admiration) that Republicans paid no price for obstructing health care reform in the 1990s and that Republicans have no right to demand Democratic complicity with Bush now.

As for DeLay, there is singular Democratic satisfaction in seeing that the moralist who insisted that Clinton be impeached is now embroiled in a series of ethical scandals. DeLay, it should be recalled, pressured many House Republicans to vote, against their own instincts, for impeachment.

Moreover, the DeLay scandals go to the heart of how Republicans have achieved power since 1994: the creation of an interlocking directorate of politicians, lobbyists, fundraisers and interest groups. For Democrats, the DeLay scandal is not simply a political gift but also an opportunity for public education on the nature of the Republicans' congressional machine.

DeLay's fate will depend on how long his party stays loyal to him and whether there are new revelations. But even on the issues of Social Security and judges, there can be no easy compromise, because both sides understand the stakes in these battles in exactly the same way.

DeLay himself drew the line sharply the day after the 2004 elections. "The Republican Party is a permanent majority for the future of this country," DeLay declared. "We're going to be able to lead this country in the direction we've been dreaming of for years."

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading figure in both the DeLay and Bush political operations, chose more colorful post-election language to describe the future. "Once the minority of House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans," he told Richard Leiby of The Post. "Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant. But when they've been 'fixed,' then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful."

If you wonder in the coming weeks why Democrats are so reluctant to give ground, remember Norquist's jocular reference to neutering the opposition party. Democrats are neither contented nor cheerful over the prospect of being "fixed." Should that surprise anyone?


© 2005 The Washington Post Company