Not as Lame as You Think

Democrats learn the art of opposition.

By Amy Sullivan

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Meet the Fighting Democrats

 he first week of March should have been a bright spot for Democrats in an otherwise bleak five years. With the president's approval numbers reaching Nixon-esque lows, and Democrats outpolling Republicans by 15 points—the party’s largest lead in a midterm election since 1982—it was beginning to look like the long-suffering Democrats had rediscovered their mojo.

But you wouldn’t know it if you picked up a newspaper that week. “For Democrats, Many Verses, but No Chorus,” declared the headline on The New York Times’ front page on Monday. Reporting that “Democratic candidates for Congress are reading from a stack of different scripts these days,” political writer Adam Nagourney described targeted local campaign strategies as “scattershot messages” that “reflect splits within the party.” The next day, The Washington Post featured a story that declared, “Democrats Struggle to Seize Opportunity,” and questioned whether congressional Democrats could regain power without “the hard-charging, charismatic figurehead that Gingrich represented for the House GOP in 1994.” Picking up that theme on Wednesday, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg lambasted Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Howard Dean, calling them “The Three Stooges” and indicting them as “useless and disastrous.” And as if on cue, the Republican National Committee released a web video on Friday titled “Find the Democratic Leader.”

Democrats are lame, feckless, timid, and hopelessly divided, with no ideas, no vision, no message, and no future: You’ll never fall flat at a Washington party by repeating this bit of conventional wisdom because everyone “knows” it to be true. Jon Stewart compares congressional Democrats to the fuzzy-but-not-fearsome Ewoks. The Onion gets an easy laugh from a parody headlined “Democrats Vow Not to Give Up Hopelessness.”

Of course, we chuckle because the jokes contain an element of truth. On some of the defining issues of the day, Democrats are indeed conflicted and divided. Most Americans and virtually the entire Democratic base wants universal health care, and yet congressional Democrats compete to offer marginal changes to the system. On a key economic issue like bankruptcy, too many Democrats sell out to lobbying interests, making it hard for the party as a whole to attack Republicans over it. Iraq has dominated the political scene for nearly four years, but Democrats couldn’t agree whether to get into it, and now they can’t agree on how to get out.

It’s understandable that pundits take one look at congressional Democrats today and declare them to be a far cry from the mighty mighty Gingrich revolutionaries of 1994. The implosion of the Bush administration and congressional Republicans has led to speculation not about whether Democrats could regain power but about how they will muff up the opportunity. Turn on a television these days, and you won’t have to count to 10 before you hear, “Where is the Democrats’ Newt?” or “Why don’t Democrats have a Contract with America?”

But the truth is that Newt Gingrich and his Contract loom so large—and today’s DC Democrats seem so small—largely because of the magic of hindsight. Back in 1994, Republicans were at least as divided as Democrats are now, if not more so. Traditional statesmen like Robert Michel, Howard Baker, and Robert Dole were constantly at loggerheads with the conservative bomb-throwers like Gingrich, Bob Walker, and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). As for unity of message, the now-revered Contract with America didn’t make its debut until just six weeks before the election; Democratic pollster Mark Mellman recently pointed out that one week before Election Day, 71 percent of Americans said they hadn’t heard anything about it. And while political journalists rushed to hail Gingrich’s genius after the election, before November they were more likely to describe Republicans in terms we associate with Democrats today. “Republicans have taken to personal attacks on President Clinton because they have no ideas of their own to run on,” wrote Charles Krauthammer in the summer of 1994, while a George F. Will column in the fall ran under the headline, “Timid GOP Not Ready for Prime Time.”

What the GOP did so brilliantly in 1994 was exploit Clinton’s weaknesses (his 1993 tax increase, his wife’s failed health-care initiative), as well as the sense among voters that reigning congressional Democrats had become complacent and corrupt (reviving the Keating Five and House banking scandals). Well, guess what? This is precisely what congressional Democrats have been getting better at doing over the past 18 months. And just as most observers missed the coming Republican revolution in 1994, so they’re missing a similar insurgency today.


Rolling grenades

On virtually all of the major slips this White House has made in the past year, there have been unnoticed Democrats putting down the banana peels. One of the best examples—and certainly the issue that sent Bush’s poll numbers southward—was the Dubai port deal. The little-noticed administration decision to contract with a United Arab Emirate-owned company to run terminals at six ports around the United States mushroomed into a public relations disaster for which the Bush administration was uncharacteristically unprepared. Within a week of the story breaking, congressional Republicans had vowed to pass legislation undoing the deal, Bush angrily declared he would veto such legislation, and polls showed that three-quarters of Americans were concerned the deal would jeopardize American security. Even more damaging, the issue shifted public opinion about who can best protect the country from future acts of terrorism. For the first time since 9/11, Democrats pulled even with Republicans on this question.

If you read the press coverage of the story, you would have thought the issue surfaced on its own. In fact, however, the story was a little grenade rolled into the White House bunker by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). No one was aware of the port deal until Schumer—who had been tipped off by a source in the shipping industry—held a press conference, and another, and another until the press corps finally paid attention. As for Schumer, he popped up in news reports about the deal, but almost always as a “critic of the administration,” not as the initiator of the entire episode.

This is not a lone example. In the winter of 2005, Bush unveiled his Social Security privatization plan, the domestic centerpiece of his second term. The president invested a tremendous amount of personal political capital in the effort, featuring it in his 2005 State of the Union address and holding carefully choreographed town meetings to simulate public support for the idea.

Most of the press corps expected the debate to be a painful defeat for Democrats. Not only were moderates predicted to jump ship and join with Republicans to support the president’s plan, but Social Security—one of the foundational blocks of the New Deal social compact—would be irrevocably changed. But then a funny thing happened. Reid and Pelosi managed to keep the members of their caucuses united in opposition. Day after day they launched coordinated attacks on Bush’s “risky” proposal. Without a single Democrat willing to sign on and give a bipartisanship veneer of credibility, the private accounts plan slowly came to be seen by voters for what it was: another piece of GOP flimflam.

As the privatization ship began sinking, Republicans challenged Democrats to develop their own plan, and when none was forthcoming, pundits whacked the minority party for being without ideas. But not putting forth a plan was the plan. It meant that once the bottom fell out on public support for Bush’s effort—which it did by early summer—Democrats couldn’t be pressured to work with Republicans to form a compromise proposal. It was a brilliant tactical maneuver that resulted in a defeat at least as decisive as the Republicans’ successful effort to kill Clinton’s health-care plan.

One reason many were unable to appreciate the brilliance of Democrats’ Social Security strategy was that they view Reid and Pelosi as ineffective party spokespeople, and therefore ineffective leaders. Reid, with his slight frame and round glasses, looks like he should be running a mercantile in the Old West, not a major political party. Even Democrats find themselves wincing when Pelosi appears on camera, perpetually wide-eyed and on-message, whatever the message may be. Neither has Gingrich’s charisma, strategic vision, or propensity to quote Clausewitz. And that leads reporters to airbrush their tactical successes out of news reports.

Consider, for instance, what happened last fall when Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), a Vietnam veteran and hawk who initially supported the Iraq war, called for immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq. When reporters asked Pelosi what she thought of Murtha’s statement, she replied that the congressman spoke for himself, not the caucus. Her response was immediately denounced by liberal critics and portrayed by reporters as evidence of Democrats’ lack of message, discipline, and shared conviction. In fact, as Howard Fineman would later report, Pelosi had worked behind the scenes to convince Murtha to go public with his change of heart and orchestrated the timing of his announcement. Knowing that the credibility of Murtha’s position would be damaged if it looked like he was the token hawk being used by “cut and run” liberal Democrats, Pelosi made the strategic calculation to put Murtha in the spotlight by himself for a few weeks before stepping forward to endorse his suggestion.

The strategy worked, and it allowed Murtha to visibly establish Democrats as the advocates of what now looks like the position toward which our Iraq policy is headed. A late February Zogby poll showed that fully 72 percent of American troops think that the United States should leave Iraq within the year; 25 percent say they should leave immediately. In addition, Pelosi’s party now holds the advantage on Iraq. As with Social Security, critics have charged that Democrats can’t win without a plan for Iraq, but a mid-March Gallup poll showed that voters think Democrats would better handle the situation (they hold a 48 to 40 advantage over Republicans), even though only one-quarter of them think that Democrats have a plan for dealing with the country.

Over in the Senate, Reid temporarily silenced his critics when he staged a showdown last fall, shutting down the Senate to compel Republicans to discuss pre-war intelligence. GOP promises to pursue inquiries into how the intelligence was gathered, interpreted, and used had gone nowhere, and Democrats had no institutional means to conduct their own investigation. So Reid forced the issue, invoking an obscure parliamentary procedure that sent the Senate into a closed session. Republicans were furious, but they were also backed into a corner. Reluctantly, the leadership agreed to restart the investigations, putting the issue of intelligence back in the national spotlight. The in-your-face move signaled that Reid had the inclination, and the electoral security, to push Republicans around in a way that his predecessor Tom Daschle never could.


“You’re out of order”

For years now, one of the knocks on Democrats has been that they don’t know how to function as an opposition party, that they still behave as if they’re governing. During the first few years of the Bush administration, even stalwart liberals like Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) worked with Republicans on legislation like Medicare reform, time and again—like Charlie Brown and Lucy—making a run at impacting policy. And their response to bruising partisanship was, as a rule, puzzling meekness. (So much so that this magazine ran a story in early 2002 called “Why Can’t the Democrats Get Tough?”)

But that changed with the heartbreaking loss in 2004. The defeat of Daschle, the nice-guy Democratic leader, and the nasty tactics of the campaign against him particularly outraged congressional Democrats. The anger was only compounded by the party’s new degree of powerlessness. They didn’t control a single thing in Washington—not the House or the Senate or the White House. Autocratic GOP chairmen turned off their microphones at hearings, reporters ignored their press conferences, and late-night comedians used them as the butt of every joke, a kind of institutional Kato Kaelin. And the base was mad as well; everywhere Democrats turned, they got an earful from activists and funders who wanted the party to fight back, to kick some ass. In the end, Democrats snapped.

One clear indication that things had changed came in the fall of 2005 when Republicans went after Jack Murtha. Two years earlier, Democrats had stood silently by while the GOP viciously attacked Daschle, comparing him to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But when newly-elected Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) called Murtha a coward during a House budget debate, Democrats shouted her down and booed. Schmidt was forced to return and ask her remarks be stricken from the record, the parliamentary equivalent of eating her words. Later in the debate, when Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) taunted conservative Democrats as “lapdogs,” Democratic Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) shot back, calling him a “Howdy-Doody looking nimrod.” As the House chair tried to gavel down the fracas that followed, shouting, “The House is out of order,” California Democrat Rep. George Miller could be heard yelling back, “You’re out of order!”

Perhaps figuring they have little left to lose, Democrats have begun turning up the heat in countless small ways. When in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Bush quietly suspended the Davis-Bacon Act in order to allow federal contractors to avoid paying the prevailing wage to workers involved in clean-up efforts, Miller led Democrats in handing the president a rare defeat. Appalled that “the President has exploited a national tragedy to cut workers’ wages,” Miller unearthed a little-used provision of a 1976 law that allows Congress to countermand the president’s authority to suspend laws after a national emergency. While it is usually nearly impossible for Democrats to get bills through the all-powerful House Rules Committee, Miller’s maneuver would have bypassed that step and guaranteed an automatic vote by the full House. Bush, faced with a vote he was sure to lose, reversed his earlier action and reinstated Davis-Bacon.

Democrats aren’t shying away from quixotic fights, either. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduces an amendment to rename the FY2006 budget bill the “Moral Disaster of Monumental Proportion” Act. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) continues his one-man oversight operation, exposing the ineffectiveness of federally-funded abstinence-only programs, investigating taxpayer-funded propaganda, and detailing the failure of Iraq reconstruction efforts. A new 527 organization called the Senate Majority Project, started by former Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan, gets under the skin of several GOP senators in its first week of existence by publicly questioning their ethics (Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) took to the Senate floor to defend himself against the group).

Of course, the point of all this is not just to annoy Republicans and stymie their efforts, but to win back Congress in fall elections. Leading that charge for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a former Clinton White House enforcer much-admired for his bare-knuckle approach to politics. The man they call “Rahmbo” has no patience for anyone who would go down without a fight or waste time crying into their chai tea about the odds against them. And so he has scraped, cajoled, and arm-twisted to expand the number of congressional races that Democrats are seriously contesting from a few dozen to nearly 50 this time around. Emanuel has done it by throwing out old ideas about who gets to be a Democratic congressional candidate—career politicians, such as state representatives or city councilmen moving up the ladder—and going after military veterans, sheriffs, ministers, and even one former NFL quarterback. With more Republican retirements being announced every day (not to mention resignations by the stray congressman or two headed off to prison), Emanuel’s chances of spearheading the biggest Democratic victory in over a decade look better than ever.


Missing the story

If the unsung Democratic guerillas were ever to adopt a mascot, it would have to be Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). The 10-term congresswoman from upstate New York is someone you don’t hear about very often because: a) she’s a House Democrat, and the media only has room for one of those, if that; and b) she’s far too feisty and interesting. In a different news world that actually covered opposition parties, she’d be a media darling. Slaughter rarely bites her tongue, and she doesn’t mind turning the tables on reporters. At age 76, she looks at least 15 years younger and has the energy of someone 50 years her junior. When I met Slaughter at her top-floor office in the Rayburn House Office Building to talk about why no one knows what she’s been doing, she was ready to vent.

“There’s this assumption that we’re the Three Stooges over here, bungling around,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I hear it all day and all night.” What’s wrong with Democrats? she mimics. “There’s nothing wrong with us!” Slaughter herself has waged an ongoing—and largely unnoticed—campaign to highlight the ways in which Republicans have abused the legislative process, locking Democrats out completely and awarding themselves unbridled power. She almost single-handedly forced Republicans to back off on plans to tamper with the Ethics Committee in order to give Tom DeLay a break.

The problem she and her colleagues run into over and over, Slaughter tells me, is that “nobody knows what we’re doing up here because nobody ever covers it.” A perfect example occurred at the beginning of March. Slaughter, who is a ranking member on the House Rules Committee, released the report “America for Sale: The Cost of Republican Corruption,” outlining all of the ways that congressional Republicans have not only gamed the system, but created their own legislative system. She followed it up a week later with a legislative package to reform the House rules process, one of the major sources of GOP power.

At a press conference to announce this reform package, Slaughter made her case and then challenged the reporters present, daring them to tell the story of how the Rules Committee had been hijacked. Unsurprisingly, no one did. That is, until Republicans decided to attack Slaughter’s report, charging that it constituted campaign activity and was therefore an unlawful use of her office. Once journalists had a Republican angle to cover, it became a story, although the substance of Slaughter’s report and its accusations was never mentioned.

The irony of Republicans calling her report about their ethics lapses unethical amused Slaughter, but it wasn’t over. A few weeks later, the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) issued a crowing press release claiming that Nancy Pelosi had removed Slaughter’s report from her leadership website because of GOP pressure. Staff for both Slaughter and Pelosi got a chuckle out of the release because they knew the website simply automatically rotated the items featured on the homepage. But liberal bloggers jumped at the bait. To them, it was proof of Democratic cowardice. Using the NRCC release as his source, Matt Stoller at MyDD.com complained about Democratic “knuckling-under.” David Sirota went further, writing: “[T]he House Democratic Leadership publicly pee[d] down its leg in knee-shaking fright, removing a major report on Republican corruption from its website. Why? Because they feared the GOP would yell at them about it.”

When reporters do write about Democratic victories, they often omit the protagonists from the story completely, leaving readers to wonder why Republicans would change course out of the blue. A Washington Post article about the Ethics Committee rule change simply noted that “House Republicans overwhelmingly agreed to rescind rule changes,” in the face, apparently, of phantom opposition. Or journalists give credit to maverick Republicans rather than acknowledge the success of a unified Democratic effort: The Associated Press covered Bush’s reversal on Davis-Bacon by writing, “The White House promised to restore the 74-year-old Davis-Bacon prevailing wage protection on Nov. 8, following a meeting between chief of staff Andrew Card and a caucus of pro-labor Republicans.” Or Bush is blamed for his own defeats, without any mention of an opposition effort, as with Social Security privatization.

Nor are reporters paying attention to Democratic policy proposals, as the party tries to develop a national agenda to run on. Congressional press secretaries say that reporters won’t write about their efforts unless or until Democratic legislation comes up for serious consideration. “A lot of reporters tell me, ‘Yeah, I’ll write about that when it’s on the floor,’” complained the Democratic communications director for a Senate committee. “So then some columnist writes that Democrats have no ideas and everybody in America says, ‘You’re right—I haven’t read about any.’”

As a result, it’s easy for talking heads to paint Democrats as a bunch of complainers who attack Republicans while putting forward no ideas of their own. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews calls them “kids in the back seat,” whining and asking, “are we there yet?” And in a column last winter, the U.S. News & World Report columnist Gloria Borger criticized Democrats for being, yes, “reflexively critical,” and scolded that it wouldn’t kill them to show a little “gratitude” once in a while.


Paradigm shift

In 2002 and 2003, Joshua Micah Marshall wrote a series of articles for this magazine about the myth of Republican competence. In one of those pieces, he referenced Thomas Kuhn’s famous paradigm theory, which maintains that people can hold fast to a theory or narrative even as vast amounts of contradictory evidence piles up. At the time, there were plenty of indications pointing to GOP missteps and policy failures. But Republican message discipline, and a general awe of the Bush White House’s corporate authority model, ruled the day. Everyone “knew” the Bush administration was a well-oiled machine. It took three more years, more than 2300 U.S. troops dead in Iraq, a botched relief effort for Hurricane Katrina victims, and the vice president shooting a guy in the face for the narrative to change. Yes, it is possible for conventional wisdom to be that wrong.

So it is that Democrats can be “hopelessly divided” while voting together 88 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly; just one percentage point lower than the vaunted lock-step Republican caucus. They can be “pathetically ineffective” while dealing a humiliating defeat to the president’s biggest domestic policy effort. They can be deemed “weak” and “timid” while setting the terms of the debate for pulling troops out of Iraq.

It seems the only way this particular narrative is going to change is with a Democratic victory in November. “They’ll have to pay attention to us if we win,” Slaughter told me. Taking back either house of Congress while battling the idea that they’re a weak, ineffective party with no ideas won’t be easy for Democrats. But stranger things have happened. Just ask Newt Gingrich.


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Amy Sullivan is an editor of The Washington Monthly.  
 
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