Precriminations

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, February 19, 2006

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll found that, approaching the midterm elections, Democrats enjoy their biggest advantage over Republicans in 14 years. Issue after issue -- Hurricane Katrina, Iraq, Jack Abramoff and now Harry Whittington -- gives the opposition party a potential advantage. And then there's the historical advantage enjoyed by the opposition in the elections midway through an incumbent president's second term. To some, this might be cause for celebration. But not to Democrats. Beaten in the last three election cycles, the party has a serious insecurity complex. Convinced they will face another disappointment in November, Democrats are already busy figuring out who among them should be blamed for the inevitable defeat. Here's a guide for handicapping the Democratic precriminations. -- Dana Milbank

It's Hillary's fault.

The former first lady, now senator from New York, is locking up most of the party's best advisers for a likely 2008 presidential run. Problem is, along with President Bush, she's among the most polarizing figures in the country. And she's doing much to reinforce that reputation. She compared the Republican-controlled House to a "plantation," and she called the Bush administration "one of the worst" in history. That plays well with Democratic partisans -- the ones needed to win the party's nomination -- but can alienate swing voters. That's who Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman was speaking to when he observed that Clinton "seems to have a lot of anger." Centrist Democrats like those backing former Virginia governor Mark Warner or former senator John Edwards (N.C.) for president agree with that assessment -- and they're ready to blame Clinton if things go badly in November.

It's Bill's fault.

Isn't it always? When he was president, Clinton earned the ire of fellow Democrats for "triangulating" -- portraying himself as the middle ground between feuding Democrats and Republicans. This boosted Clinton politically but, many of his colleagues complained, at the expense of party unity. Now his colleagues are grumbling that the charitable work he's doing with George H.W. Bush to aid tsunami and Hurricane Katrina victims has fortified President Bush's standing and given the president a veneer of bipartisanship. Also in the blame-Bill camp: some Hillary supporters who think the former president is eclipsing his wife's prospective candidacy -- as he did when he outshined her at Coretta Scott King's funeral.

It's Lieberman's fault.

Now that Georgia's Bush-endorsing Zell Miller is gone, Joe Lieberman is the Republicans' favorite Democrat in the Senate. And that's poisonous among Democratic partisans. Lieberman seems to relish the role, publishing an opinion article in the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial pages defending Bush's policies in Iraq. That led Bush to quote Lieberman at length in his speeches. "One of those who has seen [Iraq's] progress is Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman," Bush begins. He then quotes Lieberman saying "what a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will." Then, Bush closes with "Senator Lieberman is right." For liberal Democrats who would like to make the Iraq war the central issue of the campaign, Lieberman is the one to blame.

It's Reid's fault.

Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, has a hot temper. He has called Bush a "liar" and a "loser" and labeled Alan Greenspan a "hack." Recently, he sent apology letters to 33 Republican senators after he issued a report on Republicans' "abuse of power" that identified individual GOP senators for such things as contributions received from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Reid is somewhat vulnerable when it comes to the Abramoff affair, because he wrote letters helpful to Indian tribes represented by the lobbyist and because his staff had frequent contacts with Abramoff's team. Reid has refused to return donations from Abramoff clients. For House Democrats hoping to make corruption their theme of '06, Reid's actions help Republicans blunt the charge by making the scandal appear bipartisan.

It's Kerry's fault.

Democrats of most every stripe complain that their party's losing 2004 candidate, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, is opportunistically trying to score points with the party's liberal base at the expense of unity. First, he broke with others in the party and called for an explicit timeline for leaving Iraq; even Democrats who agreed with the policy said it wasn't convincing coming from the 2004 nominee, whose vacillations on Iraq were effectively skewered by Republicans during the campaign. Next, Kerry led a symbolic effort to filibuster the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito. The effort split Democrats almost exactly in half and lost by an embarrassing 72 to 25 vote. Leaders in both chambers now say Kerry's freelancing is hurting their hopes of unifying the party for 2006.

It's Gore's fault.


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