By Terry M. Neal
Washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, June 20, 2005 12:01 AM
Washington can seem like a strange place indeed.
This is a place where a president can try to score political points by accusing the opposition party of -- gasp! -- opposing his agenda. This is a place where the opposition party can try to score political points by opposing the president's agenda without offering much in the way of its own vision.
The president is suffering a case of the political blues right now. His agenda on major items such as Social Security, the energy bill, CAFTA (a proposed trade agreement with Central America) and John Bolton's nomination appears to be going nowhere fast. His plan to pack the courts with conservatives was compromised by members of his own party. And his handling of the war in Iraq is increasingly under attack.
To add insult to injury, on Thursday, the House voted to curtail a provision of the Patriot Act that Bush insists is necessary to protect the nation's security.
So much for that political capital he said he gained from his reelection in November.
At a major Republican fundraiser last Tuesday, he declared flatly: "On issue after issue [the Democrats] stand for nothing except obstruction. And this is not leadership."
Sounded good. Certainly the base appreciated it. But if only it were so clear-cut.
The truth is, while Democrats are now offering more vocal opposition to the president than they were in most of Bush's first term, their success in foiling Bush's second-term agenda has come only because Republicans have joined them.
"President Bush's status as a political lame duck is becoming clearer every day," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean in a statement on Thursday in response to a Washington Post story about opposition to the president's Social Security plan among Republicans. "His scheme for Social Security is not only being rejected by voters, but also by congressional Republicans worried about paying a political price at the ballot box in 2006."
There are a few reasons the president is in this situation.
Second terms are always difficult. Bush will never run for president again; and even if it's early in his second term, the party is already anticipating a future without him. Compounding that historical difficulty are Bush's tumbling approval ratings. Bush's approval rating is far lower than any other second-term president at this stage in his term. While Bush remains popular with conservatives, his support among moderates and independents has tumbled. That means many members of Congress who represent either moderate districts or states have little to fear by straying off the partisan plantation.
Despite the obvious defections of Republicans on an array of policy matters, party officials claim the party is maintaining unity.
"When there is even a whiff of dissent among a single Republican, it generates headlines," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt. "But the bottom line is that that Republicans as a whole are committed to advancing the president's agenda. The Democrats have made it clear that they are the party of no and they are more concerned with an overt political strategy than taking on the issues."
Perhaps. But for the GOP, labeling the Democrats as obstructionists is as much a broad political strategy as it is a general expression of frustration. Several Republican committees have mass e-mailed messages on this theme in recent months, hoping to make the theme stick in the minds of voters, through the media.
Democrats don't seem desperate to counter that strategy, in part out of the belief that at this point it's best to stand back and let the GOP implode. Little in terms of comprehensive vision has come out of the party's congressional leaders. The highest profile member of the party, DNC Chairman Dean, is in the news more for his latest insult than anything else.
A recent example of the Democratic modus operandi came on Thursday, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blasted Bush for his handling of Iraq without offering her own vision for success and withdrawal.
In a Thursday news conference, Pelosi told reporters that "there is nothing in [the White House's] performance that would lead us to believe that they have a plan and that they have a plan for success. They certainly haven't shared it with the Congress."
Pelosi pressed the president to clearly define measures of success in Iraq so that a reasonable timetable could be set for the troops return. But she stopped short of proposing her own timeline or demanding that the president establish a timetable.
Yet at least one Republican, Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (N.C.), has conjured up the nerve to challenge Bush to establish a timetable. Jones is no RINO (Republican In Name Only). He's among the House's most conservative members and is credited with coming up with the term "Freedom Fries" to protest France's opposition to the Iraq war in 2003.
Jones, whose district encompasses Camp Lejeune, voted enthusiastically for the war in 2002, but has said in recent interviews that with the justification for war gone, it's best to get out as soon as possible. And he's lashed out at the pro-war neoconservatives whom he believes gave Bush bad advice.
I called Pelosi's office to ask her why Jones-- a conservative Republican -- was willing to go further than the House leader of the opposition party.
"There are some in our party who want to" establish a timeline, said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly. "But if you just brought [the troops] home in a month or two, the consequences could be devastating. Most people think things are bad now, but imagine how worse it could get."
Daly said it was more important to define success first. He said that only Bush -- the war's architect -- could do that.
In essence, it seems Democrats would rather be seen as naysayers on Iraq than take the political risk of outlining a plan in a world where there are no great options.
Democrats seem to have benefited only marginally from the president's problems. A CBS News poll taken in late May showed that 41 percent of the public approved of the job Republicans in Congress were doing compared with 44 percent who approved of the job Democrats were doing. For Democrats, that's fine but certainly not great.
Daly argued that Republicans are trying to give the party a bum rap as obstructionists. He pointed out that House Democrats, led by Pelosi, have called press conferences in recent weeks and months to outline support of specific proposals on education, the economy and health care.
"It doesn't get a lot of media coverage because we're the Democrats, and we're in the minority, and [our bills] won't get it improved," Daly said. "But we want the people to know that we do have a positive agenda."
Perhaps. But Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist New Democrat Network, said that on some issues the Democrats need to offer a clearer vision. On other issues, such as Social Security, Rosenberg said the party doesn't need to do more than offer opposition to Bush's private-accounts plan, because it is not a priority now.
He said it's crucial for the party to clearly lay out its vision for making America safer and more prosperous.
"Democrats have to have an affirmative argument to make if we're going to make the gains in '06 and beyond," Rosenberg said. "And I think we've got time to develop that, but we've got to get to work. We're learning how to get there. And we're just learning how to be an opposition party."