At the beginning of this year, or even a month ago, no one would have guessed that a routine business transaction between two foreign-based firms would prove to be the lever for breaking up the governing Republican coalition in Washington.
But that is exactly what happened in the eruption of political protest over the proposed takeover of cargo operations at six U.S. ports by Dubai Ports World from the London-based Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co.
Congressional Republicans, spurred by what members describe as a wave of grass-roots protest, were poised to block the sale despite President Bush's insistence that it be allowed to go forward. Yesterday the Dubai company said it would pull out of the American ports deal.
Before that, the conflict brought to the surface deep-seated resentments from the Capitol end of Pennsylvania Avenue toward the people around the president -- and, surprisingly, toward Bush himself. The harmony that had prevailed during most of Bush's tenure -- the deference that a Republican-controlled Congress has generally shown to his wishes -- disappeared. Even the normal circumspection with which congressional Republicans treat the White House withered in the unexpected heat of this dispute.
Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, a committee chairman, told The Post, "This is probably the worst administration ever in getting Congress's opinion on anything."
The rebellion was fueled by talk radio and cable TV commentators stressing that the proposed new operators are based in the United Arab Emirates. White House efforts to point out that the UAE has been an ally in the war on terrorism and has provided important logistical support to the Navy did not quiet the uproar, and an offer to begin an additional 45-day security review of the deal came too late to reverse the tide of public opinion.
Even before the ports deal broke into the news, congressional Republicans were beginning to signal their inclination to go their own way, regardless of White House wishes. Despite six months of salesmanship by the president last year, his proposal for introducing private accounts into Social Security never caught on with the public, and as a result it never even came up for a vote in the House and Senate.
The Bush budget proposals struggled throughout the year and finally were approved only in an overtime session. But this ports issue was striking because it tested Bush's political credibility on what had been his strongest front: national security.
His reputation in that area has been damaged by the continuing strife in Iraq, a nation that, according to this week's Post-ABC News poll, 80 percent of Americans believe is headed for civil war.
In a pointed comment on the proposed ports deal, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said of Congress, "We will continue to use our best judgment on how to protect the American people." He left the clear implication that Bush was not necessarily doing that.
Democrats were understandably gleeful at the spectacle of the Republicans fighting among themselves, especially over what is purported to be a national security issue. Partisan Democrats such as Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the head of his party's Senate campaign committee, jumped on the ports issue quickly -- hardly expecting that the Republicans would be scrambling for space aboard the bandwagon.
Now the Democrats are broadening the argument, claiming that the Dubai deal is another example of the White House being unaware of, or incapable of anticipating, serious problems -- whether they involve the insurgency in Iraq or the levees in New Orleans.
But before the Democrats get too gleeful, they ought to ponder the nativist sentiment that was also fueling this populist rebellion. Some portion of the antagonism stemmed directly from the fact that this is an Arab-based company.
Another Post poll reported this week that more than 2 out of 5 of those surveyed said they had recently heard negative comments about Arabs. Attitudes toward Muslims, the survey said, are even more negative now than immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The same nativist spirit poisons the current debate about immigration. Talking to public officials recently from states such as Minnesota and Illinois -- far from the southern border -- I heard blunt expressions of the negative public reaction to the changing demographics of rural and suburban communities that have received many new immigrants.
Liberals such as Schumer ought to reflect that they are playing with fire when they help stoke this fever.