Respond to this Article March 2002

Why Can't the Democrats Get Tough?

The Bush White House is partisan, imperial and ruthless, but not invulnerable.

By Paul Glastris

On Nov. 22, 2000, it looked as if the presidency of the United States was about to be decided in Miami, Fla. That morning, a three-judge canvassing board in Miami-Dade County resolved to recount 10,750 "undervotes"---ballots which machines had read as showing no vote for president, but which, examined by hand, might reveal such evidence of voter intent as the now-famous "dangling chads." Outraged operatives for George W. Bush, fearing that Al Gore might pick up enough votes to win, labored to convince the judges to stop the recount. When their legal arguments failed, they turned to a different form of persuasion.

As the judges repaired to a room to examine the votes, dozens of GOP "protesters" (mostly young Republican congressional aides flown in from Washington) gathered in the vestibule outside. Though two Republican observers were inside the room, and the "protesters" could watch the proceedings from afar through a window, they nevertheless convinced themselves that something nefarious was going on. The crowd started chanting "They're stealing the election," and "No justice, no peace!" They banged on the door of the tabulation room and physically harassed people coming in and out. After several hours of chaos, the judges relented. Citing a lack of time, they announced that they were stopping the Miami-Dade recount for good.

Right-wing pundits weren't troubled by the GOP's thuggishness. They were psyched. Wall Street Journal columnist (now editorial page editor) Paul Gigot praised the "bourgeois riot" as a sign that Republicans had finally learned to "fight like Democrats."

Problem was, Democrats weren't fighting like Democrats. They staged no counter-demonstrations that day in Miami. Why? Because the vice president himself, fearing bad press, expressly ordered that unionists, civil rights activists, and other liberal ground troops should stay out of Florida.

The recount was a study in the starkly different political styles that characterize the two parties. To lead his recount effort , Gore chose Warren Christopher, widely admired for his rectitude and judiciousness. Bush chose James Baker, widely feared for his cold-blooded effectiveness. Christopher sent lawyers to Florida. Baker sent lawyers---and press people, and political surrogates, and operatives to stir up Cuban street protests. The Gore team called high-mindedly for an indeterminate process: We don't know who won, so count every vote. The Bush team sternly demanded a concrete result: We know who won, so stop the recount. When lawyers for Gore suggested slapping a subpoena on Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to prove she was taking orders from the Bush campaign (which she was) and therefore abusing her discretion, top Gore officials in Nashville overruled the plan as too incendiary. A month later, the Bush legal team publicly accused chief Gore aide Ron Klain of violating court orders by announcing the results of a partial recount---a charge the court summarily dismissed.

Why did Gore's side so consistently fail to act as ruthlessly as Bush's team in Florida? A big part of the reason, argues Jeffrey Toobin in his chronicle of the recount, Too Close to Call, was Gore's obsessive concern with how official Washington would respond. Gore "agonized about the views of the columnists, newspaper editorialists, and other elite opinion makers among whom he had lived so long," Toobin writes. "Gore cared as much about their approval as he did about winning, and he ran his recount effort accordingly." Bush, on the other hand, cared not a whit about what the "liberal media" had to say. Indeed, he knew, as the Gigot column showed, that the conservative media would support almost any tactic that put a Republican back in the White House. And so, while Gore kept his team on a leash, Bush gave his own carte blanche to do whatever it took to win.

The lessons of the recount might not matter much if Gore's hesitancy were a self-destructive trait peculiar to him. But it's not. It's a tendency widely shared among Democrats today. The Bush team can attack Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), lose $4 trillion of the surplus, and meet with campaign contributors whose company stock they own, and Democrats just watch. Sure, it's tough to fight a president wrapped in the glory of a so-far-successful war. But the Democrats' passivity long predates September 11. And then there's Enron. Is there any doubt that if the situation were reversed, Republicans would be exploiting the scandal more aggressively? Would they have hesitated, as Democrats have, to frame Enron as a political scandal, or to bombard the White House with subpoenas? Democrats can't afford to go all wobbly, especially now. Elections which could determine control of Congress are seven months away. Yet when it comes to playing political hardball, Republicans are hitting to all fields. Democrats are trembling at the plate.

Ruthless People

The Democrats have not always been so sensitive. John F. Kennedy exploited a non-existent "missile gap" to defeat Richard Nixon in 1960. Lyndon Johnson vaporized Barry Goldwater's presidential bid in 1964 with the help of an infamous TV commercial featuring a little girl and a nuclear mushroom cloud. Of course, these acts of ruthlessness paled in comparison to what Nixon would do to win---sabotaging the Vietnam peace talks to beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, for instance. But back then no one thought Democrats were pushovers. Indeed, Nixon railed during Watergate at the injustice of being prosecuted for acts that he felt his predecessors had gotten away with.

Watergate spurred a new generation of Democratic lawmakers to craft various safeguards against abuses of power, from ethics and campaign finance laws to the independent counsel statute. These measures did clean up many of Washington's grossest abuses. But they also provided handy instruments for political vendettas which the Republicans seized first. (Remember the fruitless independent counsel investigation of Carter chief of staff Hamilton Jordan's alleged cocaine use?) But Democrats quickly followed, siccing independent counsels on a host of Reagan appointees, including Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, who, upon being cleared, famously asked, "Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?"

Throughout the 1980s, the old Nixonian sense of persecution grew among conservatives. Though they controlled the White House, took over the Senate, were making inroads in the judiciary, and held sway over the military and corporate America, conservatives nevertheless felt they were at sword's point with liberal forces far bigger and more venal than themselves---in the media, Hollywood, academia, and Congress. Newt Gingrich, then a congressional backbencher, gave voice to these feelings in late-hour harangues against "corrupt" House Democratic leaders, broadcast live over C-SPAN. House Democrats occasionally lived up to the stereotypes. In 1985, after a race for Indiana's eighth congressional district ended in a virtual tie, House Speaker Tip O'Neill engineered a party-line vote that handed the seat to Democrat Richard McIntyre. That brazen act helped convince Republicans that Gingrich was right: Democrats really would "stop at nothing" to win. Further confirmation came from liberal interest groups, which unearthed and publicized embarrassing private details about Supreme Court nominees such as Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.

By the time the Clinton administration came along, GOP conservatives were in full jihad mode. They seized on the same mechanisms of scandal Democrats had used---ethics laws, congressional subpoenas, independent counsels, networks of legal activists, partisan think tanks, and an eager mainstream press corps. But they brought far more money and ferocity to the task, as well as an openly partisan conservative media. Like Nixon, the anti-Clinton right acted with more thoroughgoing viciousness than Democrats ever mustered.

And like Nixon, they justified their own ruthlessness by presuming that the opposition was boundlessly corrupt---a presumption their own inquisitions disproved. Seven Clinton-era independent counsel investigations yielded only one conviction of an administration official (the Secretary of Agriculture's chief of staff) for conduct while in office, and only two (Webster Hubbell and Henry Cisneros) for acts committed prior to joining the administration. By contrast, 11 Reagan administration officials were convicted of crimes committed while in office, plus two others for conduct before or after their government service. Still, the conservatives' gut sense of Clinton wasn't altogether wrong. Bill Clinton might not "do anything" to win, but he was willing to fight harder and brush up closer to the edge of legality than any prominent Democrat in years. His almost maniacal fundraising in 1996, for instance, infuriated the right, scandalized the press, and sickened the more sensitive members of his own party. But the president was unapologetic. He understood that his party's noble principles weren't of much use without the power of office to implement them.

In the end, the jihad went badly for the GOP. By the time impeachment proceedings were over, Clinton was still president, his job-approval numbers still high. The GOP actually lost House seats in the 1998 elections---the first time a president's party gained seats in the House in the sixth year of a presidency since 1822. And Newt Gingrich was back teaching college.

The two parties drew quite different lessons from the Clinton years. Democrats concluded that the Republicans' scorched-earth, win-at-all-costs strategy was not only reprehensible, but deeply unpopular with voters and determined not to stoop to that level. Republicans decided that next time, they'd be smarter about it.

The Silence of the Dems

A few days after Thanksgiving, President Bush decided to change the tone in Washington---by directing his staff to publicly attack Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. It was a curious order. Relations between Bush and Daschle had been cordial. Like virtually all Democrats, Daschle had rallied around the president after September 11, and was himself a target of terrorism, having received an anthrax-laden letter. But in recent weeks Daschle had also succeeded in blocking White-House-supported airport security and economic stimulus bills (the latter would have, among other things, given a quarter billion dollar tax cut to Enron, which paid no federal income taxes in four of the last five years).

So Bush decided to go personal, and soon everyone from Ari Fleischer to The Washington Times editorial page was parroting the same line: that Tom Daschle was an "obstructionist." Rush Limbaugh stepped up his own petty rhetoric, calling the senate leader "Puff Daschle" and "El Diablo." Newspaper and broadcast ads trashing Daschle appeared in his home state of South Dakota. One, by the Family Research Council, blasted Daschle's opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a threat to energy security. It featured a picture of Daschle next to Saddam Hussein.

It was a classic Republican smear campaign. And it was met, on the Democratic side, with silence. On the Dec. 9 broadcast of "Meet the Press," Tim Russert confronted Vice President Dick Cheney about the Saddam ad: "That's a little over the line, isn't it?" Cheney not only refused to condemn the ad but repeated the charge that Daschle was an "obstructionist." For more than two months after the Russert broadcast, not one leading Democrat publicly defended Daschle.

Finally, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) struck back, decrying the administration's "gutter attacks." But the moment had passed. Imagine what might have happened, however, if a group of prominent senators like Lieberman had immediately responded to the attacks. The soundbite writes itself: "Tom Daschle is a military veteran, a strong supporter of our war on terrorism, and a target of terrorists himself. Yet Vice President Cheney goes on national TV and suggests it's OK to compare Tom Daschle to Saddam Hussein. Well, it's not OK. It's wrong. The vice president should apologize to Tom Daschle and to the American people." Such a response might have dominated the news cycle for days, knocked a point or two off Bush's approval ratings, and sent the White House a message not to try a stunt like that again.

Alas, the Democrats' passivity in the face of White House aggression is part of a pattern. Soon after becoming president, Bush, ignoring establishment Washington's hoary advice about the importance of bipartisanship, offered up a slew of right-wing nominees: John Ashcroft for attorney general, Gail Norton for Interior secretary, Ted Olson for solicitor general. These nominees were far more controversial than any Clinton appointments Republicans had killed. But Senate Democrats barely fought their confirmation. Bush went on to push for the largest income-tax cut in a generation, tilted heavily towards the wealthy. These tax cuts had little public support. But Senate Democrats were unable to muster enough votes even for a filibuster. They had to settle for a marginal compromise with moderate Republicans.

Then, in the spring, news spread that political advisor Karl Rove had been holding policy meetings with executives of corporations, such as Intel, whose stock he owned. Washington hadn't seen a clearer example of conflict of interest in years. Yet virtually the only Democratic lawmaker to raise hell about it was Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and as a minority member of the House Government Affairs Committee, the most he could do was send a letter to the General Accounting Office (GAO) requesting information. The GAO complied, and Rove had a few weeks of bad press. But Senate Democrats, who chair committees and have the power to hold hearings and issue subpoenas, sat on the sidelines. Had the Senate gotten involved, "they could have taken Rove out of commission for six months," notes an angry veteran of the Clinton White House and the Hill. "Rove is a huge talent. It would have been like taking a bishop off the board. Believe me, Rove will not fucking return the favor."

Waxman, along with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), also had the gumption to ask the GAO last spring to investigate whether Bush campaign contributors, including Enron, influenced the findings of the Cheney energy task force. The White House's point-blank refusal to provide the GAO with details about Cheney's meetings with Enron is the surest sign yet that a full-blown political scandal lurks in the Enron mess. But had it been up to Senate Democrats, Cheney would not have been asked for the records.

On June 7, the president signed a $1.35 trillion 10-year tax cut into law, claiming the tax cut as both necessary and affordable because of the $5.6 trillion projected federal surplus. On Aug. 22, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OBM) reported that, oops, the projected surplus had shrunk 40 percent, to $3.1 trillion. By Jan. 6, it was down to $1.79 trillion. "How could they lose $4 trillion in eight months!?" complains a former top Clinton aide. "I'll tell you. Because the White House knew in the spring the economy was in recession. They knew the numbers were going to have to be revised down. They misled Congress and the American people to get their tax cut. Our side should have torn them apart. They should have subpoenaed the OBM, hauled Mitch Daniels in front of a committee. He was either grossly incompetent or purposely misleading."

Of course, the Democrats did no such thing. Instead, only one senator, Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), bothered to hold hearings on the matter. In January, Tom Daschle, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) finally criticized Bush's fiscal stewardship. But the White House and the press made mincemeat out of those speeches as each leader seemed to say something different about whether the Democrats favored rescinding the tax cuts (no, yes, maybe).

Hardcore Relationships

What is it with the Democrats? Why do they seem to have so little fight in them? I asked a couple dozen academics, Hill staffers, political consultants, pollsters and assorted operatives from both sides of the aisle. Here are some of their answers:

One reason is philosophical. Democrats believe in government, so they have a natural tendency to cooperate and compromise. Republicans, especially movement conservatives, are deeply suspicious of government, and see implacable opposition as their role in life.

Another reason is structural. Without the White House, Democrats lack a focal point of power, a place where policies and rhetoric can be crafted and disseminated to the rank and file, and where attacks by the opposition can be analyzed and responded to quickly, with guaranteed press attention. Now these responsibilities are split up among different, competing power centers---the Democratic National Committee, Daschle's office, Senate committee chairmen.

It doesn't help matters that many of the most prominent Democrats---Lieberman, Daschle, Gephardt, Edwards---are considering runs for the White House in 2004. It takes courage to publicly attack a president who has 85 percent approval ratings. But it's especially tricky if you're trying to maintain the sunny bipartisan image needed to attract swing voters.

Yet another reason is ideological. Bill Clinton succeeded as president by taking on the liberal wing of his party---on welfare reform, trade, crime, and deficit reduction. Today, most high-profile Democrats present themselves as centrists. But while centrist ideas attract the non-partisan swing voters who decide elections, they don't necessarily fire up the party's labor/black/environmentalist base. The Democratic Party today is more competitive politically, but less energized internally.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, is a wholly owned subsidiary of its conservative/Christian/corporate base. Though Bush has carved out some moderate positions, on education for instance, he is personally rooted in, and obsessed with pleasing, his party's right wing. Over time, this may be his undoing. But for the moment, it infuses the GOP with true-believerness and emboldens the administration to think big and act with daring.

The differences in partisan fury seem to reach all the way to the grass roots. In 1999, the Pew Center for The People & The Press surveyed the political views of 5,000 Americans nationwide and found a curious difference between the ideological wings of the two parties. Forty-one percent of liberal Democrats identified themselves as political independents. Only 24 percent of staunch conservatives did likewise. Seventy-eight percent of staunch conservatives said they cared "a good deal" about which party controls Congress. Only 64 percent of liberal Democrats matched them. It seems hardcore conservative voters are more conventionally partisan than their liberal counterparts. At some level, GOP politicians probably know that they will be rewarded by their core constituents for doing what it takes to win---a faith that Democratic pols lack.

The difference in partisan intensity also reflects the different media outlets to which the parties play. Democrats in Washington focus incessantly on the establishment press: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, CBS, CNN, NPR. That is where their worldview is shaped, and where they look for validation of their ideas and status. Republican leaders are hardly indifferent to the establishment outlets. But they increasingly take their cue from the expanding alternative universe of conservative media: The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, talk radio, Fox News Channel.

Needless to say, these two media worlds are governed by radically different rules. Yes, there is a certain amount of liberal bias in the mainstream press. But on balance, the big national papers and broadcast networks take seriously the traditional journalistic strictures of fairness, accuracy, and independence of judgement.

The conservative press, by and large, does not labor under these constraints. It does not pretend to be in the business of presenting all sides fairly, but of promoting its side successfully. "The conservative press is self-consciously conservative and self-consciously part of the team," observes conservative strategist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform (who, like most conservatives I spoke with, doesn't buy the idea that Republicans fight more ruthlessly than Democrats). "The liberal press is much larger, but at the same time it sees itself as the establishment press. So it's conflicted. Sometimes it thinks it needs to be critical of both sides, to be nonpartisan."

You see this all the time. The editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times supported or kept silent about the Republican Senate's strategy of blocking votes on Clinton judicial nominees. Now these papers cry foul when Democrat senators try to do the same to Bush. The New York Times and Washington Post editorials, on the other hand, have been consistent in their condemnation. But to the conservative press, intellectual consistency is for, well, intellectuals. What's more important is to stiffen the resolve of GOP lawmakers to fight the Manichaean battle against liberalism. If the mainstream papers want to undermine the will of Democrats with a lot of high-minded consistency, that's their business. Let 'em get medals for fair play. We'll get the federal judiciary.

The same dynamic plays out among TV pundits. Conservatives such as Robert Novak, Kate O'Beirne, and Jonah Goldberg are ideological warriors who attempt with every utterance to advance their cause. Their center-left counterparts, people such as Juan Williams, Margaret Carlson, and E.J. Dionne, simply don't have the same killer instinct. While their sympathies are obvious, liberal pundits are at heart political reporters, not polemicists, who seem far more at ease on journalistic neutral ground, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, rather than in vigorously defending Democrats. That role falls to Democratic operatives like Paul Begala, but even here there are exceptions. Former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos is supposed to be the liberal counterweight to George Will on ABC's "This Week." He performs the role well when he chooses to, often puncturing Will's sophisms with the sharp edge of a well-chosen fact. Just as often, however, Stephanopoulos's palpable desire to be accepted as a journalist leads him to value-neutral how-the-game-is-played analysis, or to gestures of unreciprocated fair-mindedness ("You know, I have to agree with George Will on this one").

Playing Hardball

There is a certain logic to the Democrats' nonconfrontational strategy: Until September 11, the strategy appeared to be working. The Bush administration's ideological hardball drove Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) to leave the party, handing the Democrats control of the Senate. The president's poll numbers dropped with each Clinton administration measure he overturned, from arsenic standards for drinking water to workplace ergonomic rules.

But September 11 really did change everything. The wind is with Bush now, and congressional elections are seven months away. It's true that on domestic issues, the Democrats have the more sound and popular positions. But it's going to take more than sweet reason to make that case to the American voter.

The good news is that to beat the Republicans, the Democrats don't have to fight like them. They simply need to remember how to fight like Democrats. The first step is to stop worrying about how their words and actions will play in the establishment media. Bad press is frequently the sign that you're doing something right. If they're serious about beating back Bush, Democrats need to start pulling on all the levers of power available to them, and to stop shrinking away from sounding partisan when the cause is just. Standing up for your Senate leader when he has been attacked is a form of partisanship that the average American can admire. Voters can grasp the moral difference between investigating a politician's private life and investigating how an administration managed to lose $4 trillion of surplus. American voters understand that Enron is no Whitewater.

Of course, it may simply be too much to expect the fractured Democratic congressional delegations to do this sort of thing on their own. So perhaps they should bring in a ringer, just for the next seven months. Someone who can help coordinate a smart set of policies and a winning message. Someone whose words Democratic-leaning voters will listen to and be excited about. Someone who can go on the talk shows and, in the midst of a bipartisan embrace, deliver the partisan stiletto. Someone who understands that the principles of the Democratic party---freedom, tolerance, a fair shake for the average person---are not worth much if you aren't in a position to put those principles into action. Someone who's not running for president and isn't afraid to mix it up with the Republicans. Someone who will drive the Republicans crazy. Someone like Bill Clinton.

Paul Glastris is editor in chief of The Washington Monthly.


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