Indeed, watching Democrats' political advantage dissolve virtually overnight has been a bit like sitting through one of those Very Bad Day comedy movies, in which the hapless hero loses his job, his wife, and his faithful dog all before dinnertime, getting himself arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct in the process. On October 17, backed into a corner by the fancy procedural footwork of Republicans, House Democrats were forced to pull legislation aimed at scaling back the expanded wiretapping powers Congress granted President Bush in August. That same day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi felt compelled to walk back her pledge to call a House vote on whether the Ottoman Empire's slaughter of Armenians during World War I officially qualified as genocide--a matter of little interest to American voters but of such intense concern to our Turkish allies that even many Democrats had abandoned Pelosi on the issue. The next day, Pelosi's caucus also failed to override President Bush's veto of the bill reauthorizing and expanding the wildly popular s-chip program that provides health care to poor children. More galling still, in the heat of the s-chip debate, California Democrat Pete Stark let loose a tirade about how Republicans refused to fund health care but were content to let our military men and women be shipped off to Iraq to "get their heads blown off for the president's amusement." As a result, rather than spending their post-vote hours spotlighting the uncompassionate conservatism of today's GOP, Democratic leaders found themselves beset by Republican calls for Stark's head. All told, it was enough to make you long for the comparatively carefree days of September's "General Betray Us" scandal.
Not to kick a party when it's down, but what in God's name is wrong with congressional Dems? It's one thing to lose all your battles when you're the beleaguered minority crushed beneath the boot heel of a well-liked commander-in-chief and a power-mad congressional majority. But, when you can't manage to win even one lousy spin cycle under the current politically felicitous circumstances, voters are going to start wondering if you simply don't have what it takes to govern--if perhaps you really do deserve that 25 percent approval rating.
To be fair, the party is in a tough spot, having essentially regained power on a promise to get us out of Iraq, only to find that ending a war isn't exactly an easy task. And some Dems are whining about the continued difficulty of getting anything done when the party has only a slim majority in the House and an even narrower edge in the Senate--while dealing with a president who doesn't seem to understand that he is supposed to quietly sit out the rest of his term in the White House gym. If the Republicans aren't willing to play nice, what's a well-intentioned Democrat to do?
Grow a pair--that's what. Whatever concrete challenges Democrats face, there is no excuse for the party being repeatedly, consistently outgunned in the area of pure public relations. In part, this can be blamed on Dems' talent for picking the wrong battles. Yes, genocide is a terrible thing. But sticking one's finger in the eye of a major (and temperamental) Muslim ally for the sake of symbolically denouncing atrocities committed nearly a century ago by a political entity that no longer exists suggests a troubling inability to prioritize. Worse yet, when a majority of Armenian-Americans reside in the home state of the House speaker, it opens one up to charges of naked pandering.
Equally disturbing, you get the sense that Democrats still don't grasp the extent to which Republicans regard congressional politics as war. Or maybe they do get it (one would hope so, after the past few years) but lack the stomach for the fight, whether because of some high-minded notion of congressional comity or some self-congratulatory sense of their superior character. Either way, they need to wake up and smell the napalm. House Republicans are proudly committed to thwarting Dems at every turn, and their success in tying up the wiretapping bill was no fluke. Minority members have assembled a working group known as the Floor Action Team--or FAT--charged with learning how to use the House's most arcane rules to derail legislative progress. Classy? Not especially. Effective? Clearly.
It's not as though Dems are completely clueless. In the midst of her Very Bad Week, Pelosi sent a letter to her caucus announcing a p.r. push to improve the party's image before the accelerating presidential race pushes Congress off stage. Hoping to remind the public of all the things the 110th has achieved thus far--ethics reform, a bump in the minimum wage, an increase in student aid--House Dems are being instructed to hold more town-hall meetings and press conferences, as well as to up the flow of e-mail and snail mail to constituents. Majority Whip James Clyburn will track which members are the most enthusiastic cheerleaders.
But the next few weeks are likely to bring more heated confrontations than outright victories. (Bush has, among other things, vowed to veto upcoming spending bills.) And, unless Dems get better at the crucial spin battles-- especially in cases when things don't break their way--they aren't going to have a majority to squander for very long.
By The Editors