From the Filibuster to Medicare, GOP on a Winning Streak

Posted December 5, 2003 at 6:09pm

As President Bush kicked off the holiday season this week, Democrats had little to celebrate after November turned into a month of painful political disasters and embarrassing defeats. Republicans, meanwhile, can claim themselves the party that “delivers on its promises” and happily toast what was a series of bad calls by Democratic leaders on a range of issues. [IMGCAP(1)]

First, the Democrats misunderstood and badly miscalculated the federal judges filibuster issue earlier in the month when they blocked the confirmation of what one called, in a moment of high pique, “Neanderthal” court appointees. In taking up the confirmation issue, both sides wanted to fire up their prospective bases, and according to our latest New Models Poll, they both succeeded.

The problem for the Democrats is that elections are won in the middle, and the poll also showed that independents who said they heard the Democratic judicial filibuster message had a 40 percent favorable-55 percent unfavorable view of Democratic Senate candidates. In contrast, independents who heard the Republican message had an expected neutral reaction of 45 percent favorable-41 percent unfavorable — owing to the fact that the issue, in the public’s mind, was Democratic obstructionism not nominee ideology.

The Democrats’ obstructionist filibuster was a costly exercise of raw political power that clearly didn’t sit well with the all-important independent vote, but it did something else that was even more devastating.

Like the old saying goes, timing is everything. Before the Cloakroom cots were back in storage, Republicans brought the Medicare prescription drug bill out of conference, leaving Democrats with a strategically untenable choice: oppose the popular prescription drug bill and engage in back-to-back filibusters or give the president and Republicans in Congress a historic victory and a big boost with another important voter group — seniors. The Democrats, led by Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Tom Daschle (S.D.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), didn’t see it coming.

For months, Republican leaders had been quietly working with the AARP, normally a Democratic ally, to produce a reform package that the powerful seniors’ organization could support. When they did, stunned Democrats were left fuming, particularly the Kennedy caucus. Democrat Congressional leaders were caught flat-footed, and Democrat presidential candidates found themselves out on a limb, too, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) sawed away.

But the Republicans’ prescription drug victory, won with the help of the AARP, wasn’t the only thorny problem for Democrats last month. The Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage has set the wheels in motion for a constitutional showdown in either the Supreme Court or Congress or both.

The decision poses a serious political dilemma for Democrats because the gay marriage issue clearly cross-pressures one of their key voter groups. Much like big labor, the gay community is playing an increasingly important role in the Democratic Party by providing both significant financial and volunteer support.

A recent Pew poll showed Democrats deeply divided on this issue, opposing gay marriage by a margin of 52 percent to 39 percent. Even more surprising, only a small plurality of Democrats, 48 percent to 44 percent, support civil unions, the alternative to gay marriage supported by most of the Democrat presidential candidates. Their attempts to tap dance around this issue over the past two weeks is a clear indication of the fine line Democrats must walk when it comes to keeping this key voter group happy.

Finally, Republicans can celebrate the energized economy, which is not only recovering at a pace not seen since 1984, but has also produced more than 300,000 jobs the past four months. If that momentum continues, the Democrats could face their own worst-case election scenario — a Republican recovery creating jobs at full throttle by next fall.

With the Christmas recess just around the corner the only thing under the tree with potential as an election year issue for Democrats is the situation in Iraq, but basing an election victory on an American defeat is simply bad politics. Democrats would be well-advised to use the holiday break as a good time to reassess their political plans and strategy. Obstructionism and over-wrought political rhetoric didn’t work in 2002, and it won’t work in 2004.

When it comes to next year’s elections, a lively solution-based debate, free of personal attacks and invective, on issues that matter to people is what most Americans want for Christmas from their political leaders.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.