You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Block Party

TRB From Washington

Now that they have taken the House (and probably the Senate), Democrats should start acting like Republicans. I don't mean theRepublicans of today; I mean the Republicans of the late 1990s. Inits behavior during Bill Clinton's final years in office, the GOP offers a template for how Democrats should approach the final yearsof George W. Bush's presidency.

In Clinton's concluding years, the GOP played a brilliant game of good-cop-bad cop. In Congress, the Gingrich revolutionaries wagedan all-out effort to emasculate the Clinton presidency. Afterinitially dwelling on Clinton's Whitewater land deal, the WhiteHouse Travel Office, and other political minutiae, the GOP in 1998 tried to use Clinton's lies about his affair with Monica Lewinskyto remove him altogether.

It was kamikaze politics. The public loathed the partisan warfareand, in the 1998 midterm elections, punished Republicans at thepolls. But the GOP didn't give up. In 1999 and 2000, it blocked virtually all of Clinton's initiatives—from a prescription-drugbenefit to a minimum-wage hike to a post- Columbine push for guncontrol. Even on foreign policy, where presidents usually gravitate late in their administrations, the Republican Congress kept Clinton on a tight leash. The Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test BanTreaty. And, with U.S. planes in the sky over Kosovo, it defeated a resolution supporting the war effort and tried to block funding for the peacekeeping that followed. GOP Senator Mitch McConnell even admitted that, when it came to Clinton's agenda, the Republicans pursued a "strategy of not letting any critical mass develop before the election."

For the GOP Congress, all this obstruction was disastrous. Whitewater-obsessive Al D'Amato lost his Senate seat; Newt Gingrich abandoned his speakership and so did his hapless would-be successor, Bob Livingston. But, for Governor George W. Bush, it was a political blessing. By immolating itself, the GOP Congress also blew up the final years of Clinton's presidency and left Americans desperate to end political bloodsport. Which is exactly what candidate Bush promised to do. "I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years," declared Bush in his 2000 convention speech. "I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect." Again and again, Bush told the heartwarming story of his friendship with his Democratic lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, who had endorsed Bush's reelection in Texas before dropping dead. Bush even triangulated off the GOP Congress, lamenting that "Americans have seen a cycle of bitterness, an arms race of anger" and "both parties bear some of the blame."

It was a shrewd strategy. Al Gore had numerous advantages in the 2000 race, but, as the sitting vice president to a bitterly polarizing president, he could not easily promise to "change the tone." On Election Day, voters who said Clinton would go down in history more for "scandals" than "leadership" favored Bush by 30 points. In 2000, the American people were happy with the direction of the country but disgusted with the culture of Washington. The Republican Congress had relentlessly stoked that disgust, and George W. Bush rode it all the way to the White House.

None of this is to say Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Congress should try to destroy Bush personally or impeach him. But neither should they throw him a political lifeline. If Bush wants bipartisan compromises, Democrats should define "bipartisan" the way Bush himself has: partisan initiatives softened around the edges to pick up moderates from the other side. If Bush opposes such efforts, Democrats should try to pass them anyway and force a veto. And they should hold hearings on everything from illegal wiretapping to global warming to Iraq.

This won't warm the hearts of the American people. Republicans will blame Democrats for partisan bickering, and they won't be entirely wrong. But Democrats should not let that stop them. After all, no legislation is better than bad legislation, which is the only kind Bush is likely to sign. And there is a good reason to hold hearings: to restore the balance of legislative-executive power, which the Bush White House has so dramatically altered. Tough investigations are the Democrats' best chance of keeping the administration from using its claims of unchecked presidential power to justify further lawlessness. (Given what the Bushies have already done, it is chilling to remember that scandals often occurduring presidents' final years in office.) The Democrats have a historical responsibility: If they don't recalibrate the constitutional scales, future administrations will likely pick upwhere Dick Cheney leaves off—just as Richard Nixon inherited the "Imperial Presidency" from Lyndon Johnson.

Finally, a confrontational Congress could help the Democrats in 2008. Partisan gridlock might hurt Nancy Pelosi's and Harry Reid's reputations, but the public will mostly blame an unpopular president. And, while the GOP presidential nominee in 2008 will almost certainly try to distance himself from Bush and Washington, a Democrat should find it easier to play the untainted outsider, as Bush did in 2000. Rather than help Bush salvage his presidency, Congress should lay the foundation for a Democratic candidate to run against it.

That will be easier for a Democrat who isn't from Washington. If Democrats have a weakness in 2008, it is that their first-tier candidates mostly hail from the Senate, which is always a liability and more so when Washington is in disrepute. (By contrast, the GOP's great strength is that, in an historical anomaly, Bush's vice president won't be seeking his party's nomination.) Since there's not much Democrats can do in the next two years to improve Washington's reputation, they should look for presidential candidates who aren't tainted by it. That means governors like Bill Richardson, or at least senators (and ex-senators) who can credibly distance themselves from the institution—such as John Edwards and Barack Obama.

Democrats shouldn't fool themselves. The American people haven't given them a mandate to govern; they have given them a mandate to stop Bush from governing. For the next two years, the job of the Democratic Congress will be to block—and to hope that, in 2008,the party hands the ball to someone who can really run.