WASHINGTON--Democrats in Congress are discovering what it's like to live in the worst of all possible worlds. They are condemned for selling out to President Bush, and for failing to make compromises aimed at getting things done.
Democrats complain that this is unfair and, in some sense, it is. But who said that politics was fair?
Over the short run, Democratic congressional leaders can count on little support from their party's presidential candidates, particularly Barack Obama and John Edwards. Both have decided their best way of going after front-runner Hillary Clinton--who has been in Washington since her husband's election as president in 1992--is to criticize politics-as-usual.
At this weekend's Democratic fundraising dinner in Des Moines, Obama and Edwards not only attacked Bush fiercely but issued broadsides against the larger status quo.
When Obama assailed "the same old Washington textbook campaigns" and declared that he was "sick and tired of Democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking and acting and voting like George Bush Republicans," he was aiming at Clinton. But Obama was echoing what many in his party have been saying about their congressional leadership.
And when Edwards said that "Washington is awash with corporate money, with lobbyists who pass it out, with politicians who ask for it," he was criticizing a system in which his own party is implicated.
It makes sense for Democratic presidential candidates to distance themselves from the party's Washington wing. A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the performance of Democratic congressional leaders, an increase in dissatisfaction of 18 points since February. Among Democrats, disapproval of their own leaders rose from 16 percent in February to 35 percent now; in the same period, disapproval among independents rose from 41 percent to 56 percent.
Democrats in Congress say their actual achievements of a minimum-wage increase, lobbying reform, improvements in the student loan program, and last week's override of Bush's veto of a $23 billion water projects bill are being overlooked--and that Bush and his congressional allies have systematically blocked even bipartisan efforts to produce further results.
For example: The increases in financing for the State Children's Health Insurance Program passed after Democrats made a slew of concessions to Republicans to win broad GOP support. But in the House, Democrats were short of the votes needed to override the president's veto, so the proposal languishes.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the Appropriations Committee, notes that he has bargained productively with Republicans and that his budget bills have secured dozens of their votes. But the president seems intent on a budget confrontation.
In a letter to Bush on Saturday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to underscore the president's role in the stalemate by calling for a "dialogue" to settle budget differences which "have never been so great that we cannot reach agreement on a spending plan that meets the needs of the American people."
They went on: "Key to this dialogue, however, is some willingness on your part to actually find common ground. Thus far, we have seen only a hard line drawn and a demand that we send only legislation that reflects your cuts to critical priorities of the American people."
Pelosi and Reid have a point, and they want Bush to get the blame for a budget impasse. But Bush seems to have decided that if he can't raise his own dismal approval ratings, he will drag the Democrats down with him. So far, that is what's happening.
Yet the budget is just one of the Democrats' problems. Their own partisans are furious that they have been unable to force a change in Bush's Iraq policy. In the Pew survey, 47 percent said the Democrats had not gone "far enough" in challenging Bush on Iraq. Many in the rank and file are also angry that the Democratic-led Senate let through the nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general, even though he declined to classify waterboarding a form of torture.
Congressional Democrats are caught between two contradictory desires. One part of the electorate wants them to be practical dealmakers, another wants them to live up to the standard Obama set in the peroration of his Iowa speech when he praised those who "stood up ... when it was risky, stood up when it was hard, stood up when it wasn't popular." Is there a handbook somewhere on how to be a courageous dealmaker? Pelosi and Reid would love to read it.
E. J. DIONNE, JR. is a columnist for The Washington Post, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.