Democrats’ 2003 Strategy: More Obstructionism

Posted February 21, 2003 at 11:58am

If voters intended the 2002 election to move Congress off dead center and out of gridlock, guess again. Furious Senate Democrats are intent on jamming up whatever they can with filibusters, requiring Republicans to find 60 votes to pass President Bush’s agenda. [IMGCAP(1)]

And, at the same time, the Democrats’ leaders, Sen. Thomas Daschle (S.D.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), are not only challenging Bush’s policies, but his honesty — accusing him of a “credibility gap” and “deceptiveness.”

It’s a high-risk strategy, flying in the teeth of strong Bush approval ratings for trustworthiness and leadership and opening Democrats up to new charges of obstructionism.

Democrats now are attempting to block a lower-court nominee, Miguel Estrada, for the first time ever through a filibuster, and Daschle advisers say the tactic will be employed again on any controversial matter not covered by budget reconciliation rules allowing money bills to pass with 51 votes.

A Bush tax cut could pass, but Daschle advisers expect the 60-vote strategy to be applied to Medicare and Medicaid reform, energy legislation and non-Defense appropriations bills.

Calling Daschle “the angel of death,” one GOP Senate staffer said he figures that Democratic logic is “since [Republicans] are in charge of the White House, the House and the Senate, we’ll get blamed if things don’t pass.

“The Democrats evidently figure that the public doesn’t understand cloture and if they shut the place down and the Senate is the burial place of legislation people want, they will stand to benefit.”

Republicans hope to pressure Democrats on the Estrada nomination through Hispanic media and the presidential bully pulpit. Bush used his weekly radio address Saturday to boost his Honduran-born nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

In addition, Republicans hope to embarrass Democrats with a 1998 quote from Senate Judiciary ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a leading proponent of the Estrada filibuster.

Leahy said, “I have stated over and over on this floor that I would … object and fight against any filibuster on a judge, whether it is somebody I opposed or supported. …

“If we don’t like somebody the president nominates, vote him or her up or down. But don’t hold him in unconscionable limbo, because in doing that, the minority of Senators really shame all Senators.”

Daschle advisers say that he’s not acting on his own to thwart GOP nominees and legislation. “What Tom says represents the overwhelming consensus of the Democratic Caucus, which genuinely feels that Bush is getting away with untruths.”

Democrats accuse Bush of advocating education reform and homeland security and then underfunding them, of representing his tax cut as a stimulus when it’s actually a 2004 re-election device that mainly helps rich people and of underplaying the costs and dangers of an Iraq war, especially occupation of the country after a likely military victory.

Partly, Democratic leaders are responding to their base. Moderate Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a New Democrat think tank, told me that “rank-and-file Democrats, and not just lefties, are just fed up to here with Bush.”

“They want to fight. They are not in a compromising or accommodating mood. And it’s because the same inability to listen and work with others that he’s displayed vis a vis Iraq has been the modus operandi on domestic policy.

“Shoving another big, fat, indefensible tax cut in our face after the first round in 2001? Please! There’s been no attempt to govern from the center out. Bush has made his choice to govern from the right in,” Marshall said.

“So Democrats feel this guy is just as calculating as anybody’s ever been in the White House, that he’s utterly ruthless, that he has no intention of tying to find accommodation, that he wants to crush us.”

Daschle’s new take-the-bark-off aggressive style against Bush, his advisers say, is partly based on his conviction that Bush’s policies are “irresponsible” and partly based on anger at how he and fellow Democrats were treated in 2002.

“Daschle tried to be cooperative after the terrorist attacks,” said one adviser, “but the minute he raised any disagreement on issues, they used brutal tactics to try to bring him down, running ads in South Dakota comparing him to Saddam Hussein. Independent groups bought the ads, but the White House didn’t repudiate them.”

Another adviser said that “what the White House did to [former Sen.] Max Cleland [D-Ga.] was shameful, beyond the pale. He voted for Bush’s 2001 tax cut, but it did no good. Draft-dodgers — Bush and [now-Sen.] Saxby Chambliss [R-Ga.] castigated Max as lacking patriotism — somebody who’d lost three limbs defending his country.”

There’s also a sense among Democrats that Bush is vulnerable. His approval ratings are down from the high 80s to the high 50s, but that’s largely the result of “time and natural decay,” a Democratic pollster said.

“Getting him down to 50 is the hard part,” he said. “And part of that involves raising doubts about his character” — hence the charges of “credibility gap.”

However, a Gallup poll in January showed that 83 percent of voters think Bush is “willing to make hard decisions”; 76 percent consider him a “strong and decisive leader”; 70 percent think he’s “honest and trustworthy”; and 65 percent say he “inspires confidence.”

“We’re not going to get this done overnight,” a Democratic strategist said of the task of bringing Bush’s numbers down.

In the process, Democrats could well bring their own numbers down. Instead of concentrating on blocking Bush, they should use clear, appealing countervisions — and big ones, to match his.

Bush, said a White House aide, disdains what he calls “small ball.” Democrats can’t fight Bush by being small themselves.