What is the matter with the Democrats? They are rolling over in a blissful haze of bipartisanship, while George W. Bush appoints a hard-right Cabinet and pursues a hard-line program. It's like a country after a bloodless coup d'etat. Daily life goes on. The tame media makes soothing noises. Rituals of democracy endure. The out-party simulates opposition, toothlessly.
But this is no banana republic, where genuine opposition leaders are shot and crusading newspaper publishers disappear. The election may have been stolen, but our civil liberties are intact. And the opposition party won the popular vote and gained seats in Congress.
So are the Democrats on Prozac, or what? Imagine if circumstances were reversed. Say Al Gore prevailed in the Florida recount and won narrowly and Republicans have good reason to believe the election was stolen. Now, Gore is appointing a government. Moderates get key foreign policy jobs. But attorney general goes to Harvard liberal Laurence Tribe. Friends of the Earth picks the interior secretary. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is named secretary of labor. Liberal groups are ecstatic. Attaboy, Al!
Do you think Trent Lott and Tom DeLay would be cooing about bipartisanship? Not on your life. They would going berserk and doing everything to block anyone left of Joe Lieberman.
Democrats are hobbled by several problems. First, their unity is undercut by their own center-right. Republicans, by contrast, have repeatedly allowed a single senator to block an unpalatable nomination while GOP moderates went meekly along.
When John Ashcroft, Bush's far-right nominee for attorney general, decided to oppose Missouri Judge Ronnie White, Republicans (who had previously supported White) rallied around Ashcroft. White's nomination to the federal bench went down, 55-45, on a straight party-line vote.
One senator, Jesse Helms, was sufficient to block a normal appointment of Roger Gregory as the first black judge on the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Helm's Republican colleagues simply threatened a filibuster. (Gregory finally got a provisional recess appointment.)
Second, much of the party, from Gore on down, is bending over backwards to be conciliatory. They have convinced themselves, as Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt said recently, that the party which seems too adversarial will be punished by the voters in 2002. Do Democrats have amnesia? In 1993-94, the Republicans opposed nearly everything Bill Clinton offered. But it was Clinton who looked inept while the GOP was rewarded with control of both houses in the 1994 sweep.
Third, nearly every media talking-head in Washington is bleating about the importance of moderation, even though Bush's Cabinet is anything but. Further, Democrats believe (correctly) that public opinion is trending in their direction; so they need only wait for the unpopularity of Bush's program to reveal itself and the voters will give them Congress in 2002. But this view underestimates the craft of the Republicans. Democrats also had public opinion in 2000, and Bush still managed to seize the White House.
Finally, some of most effective Senate Democrats (correctly) see genuine opportunities for constructive bipartisanship in this divided Congress, on basically liberal issues such as patients rights, school reform, prescription drug coverage, and a targeted tax cut. They don't want to poison the well.
Alas, the well is already poisoned. Voting down two or three extremist nominees now will not wreck bipartisan compromise in six months.
Prevailing on the Ashcroft appointment will hardly make Republicans more docile on patients rights. Win or lose, Republicans will back bipartisan bills they deem convenient.
Some Democratic toughness now will likely produce better compromises later on. The Orlando Sentinel recently investigated disputed ballots in one Florida county. The paper found that a majority of overvotes - ballots not counted because the voter mistakenly voted for more than one candidate - were actually ballots in which the voter checked the box for Al Gore and then wrote in Gore's name as well.
It's now clear that Gore actually won Florida by better than 20,000 votes. Instead of trying to appear judicious in the post-election long count, Gore should have been screaming from the housetops. Some real resistance would have made the Supreme Court think twice before stealing the election for Bush. And instead of ceremonially enjoying his sad, twilight moment as Senate President, Gore should be leading the opposition.
For six years, the Republican Senate has stacked the deck in hearing after hearing. Democrats should use their brief period of Senate majority to call confirmation hearings and allow plenty of witnesses to build a case against Bush's several extremist appointees. Sometimes the most constructive role of an opposition party is to oppose.
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