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The Ruthless Party

From the February 7, 2005 issue: The media tolerate or even encourage Democratic rage. But the White House can't afford to.

Feb 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 20 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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ON THE EVE of the election in Iraq, Democratic senator Edward Kennedy called President Bush's Iraq policy "a catastrophic failure." He demanded that American troops immediately begin to withdraw. "We have no choice," he declared, "but to make the best we can of the disaster we have created in Iraq." Kennedy said the retreat of American forces should be completed "as early as possible in 2006," and suggested that, in Iraq, American troops are a bigger problem than terrorists.

Though appalling, Kennedy's statement was not out of character for Democrats these days. "I don't like to impugn anyone's integrity," said Democratic senator Mark Dayton, before impugning the integrity of Condoleezza Rice. "But I really don't like being lied to, repeatedly, flagrantly, intentionally. It is wrong, it is undemocratic, it is un-American, and it is dangerous." After Rice took exception to being called untruthful by Democratic senator Barbara Boxer, Boxer complained on TV: "She turned and attacked me."

This is madness, but there is method in it. The talk among congressional Democrats is about the tactics Newt Gingrich used as House minority whip in 1993 and 1994. As they remember it, Gingrich opposed, blocked, attacked, zinged, or at least criticized everything President Clinton and Democratic leaders proposed. It was a scorched-earth approach, Democrats believe. And it worked, crippling Clinton and resulting in the 1994 election that gave Republicans control--lasting control, it turned out--of the House and Senate. Now Democrats, after losing three straight elections, hope brutal tactics will work for them.

So they ganged up on Rice, accusing her of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, though they had relied on the same faulty intelligence about WMD. They blamed Alberto Gonzales, as chief White House counsel, of fostering the torture of captured terrorists. All he had done, however, was render a legal opinion on the status of terrorists under the Geneva Convention. As most experts agree, terrorists aren't covered. Kennedy threw the word "quagmire" around like confetti. And so on. What was the initial response of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to the president's idea of reforming Social Security? Bush wants to "destroy" the system, Reid insisted.

Yet Democrats act as if they're taking the moral high ground. Listen to Howard Dean, who's favored to become the next Democratic national chairman. Asked in an un-aired interview with Fox News to list his supporters for chairman, Dean said: "It's not likely I'm gonna make an announcement like that on Fox . . . because Fox is the propaganda outlet of the Republican party . . . . I have to weigh the legitimacy that it gives you."

Dean is delusional. He and other Democrats cannot confer or deny legitimacy. Nor do they really understand the lessons of the Gingrich era. True, Newt used rough tactics to tear down Democratic proposals and challenge Democratic leaders. He was relentless. But he was also an idea factory of conservative concepts and initiatives. His goal was to attract conservative voters who weren't Republicans. And he succeeded.

The 1994 breakthrough "was the culmination of a long process in which voters' ideology finally got in line with their partisanship," columnist David Brooks explained recently in the New York Times. "The Democrats today . . . have all the liberals. What they lack is support from middle-class white families in fast-growing suburbs. But by copying the Gingrich tactics--or what they think of as Gingrich tactics--of hyperpartisanship and ruthless oppositionalism, they will only alienate those voters even more."

Brooks is correct. Democrats misunderstand their situation. Their view is that Republicans have been mean and bruising while they've been too nice and forgiving. That's right. They think former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who was plainly obsessed with obstructing Bush at every turn, was too kindly. The lesson of the 2004 election for Democrats, then, is that they need to play rough. The real lesson, of course, is that blatant obstructionism is a failed strategy. It's what caused Daschle to lose his seat.

The media tolerate or even encourage Democratic rage. But the White House can't afford to. Senate Democrats have enough votes to block major Bush initiatives like Social Security reform and to reject Bush appointees, including Supreme Court nominees. They may be suicidal, but they could undermine the president's entire second term agenda. At his news conference last week, Bush reacted calmly to their vitriolic attacks, suggesting only a few Democrats are involved. Stronger countermeasures will be needed, including an unequivocal White House response to obstructionism, curbs on filibusters, and a clear delineation of what's permissible and what's out of bounds in dissent on Iraq. Too much is at stake to wait for another Democratic defeat in 2006.

--Fred Barnes, for the Editors