Forget "liberal": Given a few more weeks like the ones congressional Democrats just endured, and the dreaded L-word they'll be struggling to shake is "losers." Children's health care, government spying, the atrocities of the Ottoman Empire, the toxic ramblings of Representative Pete Stark--you name the issue, Dems managed to get their clocks cleaned in the p.r. battle with a fractured Republican minority led by a lame-duck president only marginally more popular with the American public than Chinese toy manufacturers.
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.
Congratulations to Al Gore, whose Nobel Peace Prize--shared with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)--is certainly well-deserved. Unfortunately, the festivities have overshadowed some of the past month's less cheery climate news.
Last week, researchers at the University of East Anglia announced, in what they called a "tremendous surprise," that the world's oceans are no longer absorbing as much carbon dioxide as they used to--a development that would vastly accelerate the rate of global warming. If that wasn't scary enough, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions seem to be growing much faster than had been assumed in even the IPCC's worst-case scenarios, according to a study just published by Stanford's Chris Field. And that's not to mention the recent news about Arctic sea ice, which appears to be melting more rapidly than many scientists expected.
Recently, in The Washington Post, Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg argued that climate change was nothing to fear and that the effects--rising sea levels, species extinction, changes in rainfall patterns--were likely to be mild. Although that piece received prominent play in the paper's "Outlook" section, readers would be wiser to trust Judith Curry, one of the nation's top climate scientists, who penned a scathing reply a few days later. In addition to noting that Lomborg played fast and loose with scientific evidence, Curry pointed out that it is foolhardy to dismiss the possibility of "catastrophic outcomes" just because there is a relatively small probability they will occur. Indeed, the past month's worth of climate news makes one wonder if the probabilities are really all that low. While global warming skeptics often scoff at the IPCC's projections on the grounds that climate science can be uncertain, that uncertainty, to the extent it exists, cuts both ways: Things may ultimately turn out to be better than the IPCC predicts, but they also could turn out to be worse.
To a large extent, carbon emissions are growing so quickly because China and India are booming. Any attempt to mitigate global warming will have to address that fact. But there is still much room for improvement here at home. A recent Post piece brought the striking news that the Washington, D.C., area alone belches out more carbon than countries like Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, or Finland, all of which have more people. (Sweden has twice as many people yet emits 80 percent as much carbon dioxide.) What's more, Washington-area residents are actually some of the "greener" folks in the country, producing 13. 2 tons of carbon per capita each year, compared to a national average of 20 tons.
The good news: Politicians seem increasingly aware that action is necessary. Just this month, Joe Lieberman and John Warner introduced an emissions- reduction bill in the Senate--a "centrist" measure that should get bipartisan support. The bill is far from perfect: Environmental groups have rightly criticized it for setting too-loose targets for curbing emissions. And the bill gives away too many tradable emission credits for free, offering a windfall to certain industries--such as Big Coal--and giving them too little incentive to reduce pollution and innovate. Democrats who care about global warming will have to fight hard to improve it. Still, the proposal is a step in the right direction--and, in a month full of bad news, hardly unwelcome.