Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?

Progressives often observe that the news media let Republicans get away with things they never let Democrats get away with, and that's often true. But we also have to acknowledge that how controversial a particular action becomes has a lot do with the choices that political actors make. Republicans are very, very good at ginning up controversy over something a Democrat said or did. Democrats could do the same thing, if they put their hearts into it.

But much of the time, they just don't. Which is why we get things like this:

Erroll Southers, President Obama's choice to head the Transportation Security Administration, withdrew his name from consideration Wednesday, dealing a setback to an agency still grappling with the security failures that led to an alleged attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day…

Obama nominated Southers, a former FBI agent, in September to head the TSA. But Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who complained that Southers hoped to make good on an Obama pledge to allow TSA workers to join unions, had placed a hold on his confirmation by the Senate.

I'd guess that around 1 percent of Americans have any idea who Errol Southers is. Why is that? Because Democrats never bothered to make an issue out of his nomination. But let's imagine the shoe were on the other foot. Let's imagine that the most liberal Democrat in the Senate (DeMint is the most conservative senator) had put a "hold" on a Republican president's nomination to head the TSA (this is something any senator can do), putting the nomination in limbo and leaving the agency leaderless. And let's imagine that that Democrat had placed the hold just as a cynical attempt to advance his own views about labor relations. And then let's imagine that someone working for al-Qaeda had tried to blow up an airplane while this nomination was in limbo. Do you think Republicans would be calling attention to it?

Of course they would. They would accuse Democrats of caring more about their petty little labor fight than about saving Americans' lives. They would make sure everyone in the country knew who this nominee was. They would be writing op-eds, and calling in to radio shows, and every time any one of them went on television he'd go on a rant about how awful and terrible it was that Democrats were undermining our security. And before you knew it, Democrats would find themselves on the defensive, being forced to answer all kinds of questions about the nomination and whether or not they really care about how many of our children get murdered by terrorists.

Democrats could have done these things themselves, and made an issue out of the Southers nomination. But they made a choice not to.

You might remember that after 9/11, the Democrats had the idea to form a Department of Homeland Security. President Bush resisted, then eventually agreed, but only if it could be used as an opportunity to undermine unions. The two parties then disagreed over their competing versions of what the department should look like. This was how the Republicans expressed their disagreement:

--Paul Waldman

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