Saturday, April 08, 2006

Dems have been smarter than they look

That's what Amy Sullivan says at Washington Monthly. Key grafs:

Rolling grenades

On virtually all of the major slips this White House has made in the past year, there have been unnoticed Democrats putting down the banana peels. One of the best examples—and certainly the issue that sent Bush's poll numbers southward—was the Dubai port deal. The little-noticed administration decision to contract with a United Arab Emirate-owned company to run terminals at six ports around the United States mushroomed into a public relations disaster for which the Bush administration was uncharacteristically unprepared. Within a week of the story breaking, congressional Republicans had vowed to pass legislation undoing the deal, Bush angrily declared he would veto such legislation, and polls showed that three-quarters of Americans were concerned the deal would jeopardize American security. Even more damaging, the issue shifted public opinion about who can best protect the country from future acts of terrorism. For the first time since 9/11, Democrats pulled even with Republicans on this question.

If you read the press coverage of the story, you would have thought the issue surfaced on its own. In fact, however, the story was a little grenade rolled into the White House bunker by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). No one was aware of the port deal until Schumer—who had been tipped off by a source in the shipping industry—held a press conference, and another, and another until the press corps finally paid attention. As for Schumer, he popped up in news reports about the deal, but almost always as a "critic of the administration," not as the initiator of the entire episode.

This is not a lone example. In the winter of 2005, Bush unveiled his Social Security privatization plan, the domestic centerpiece of his second term. The president invested a tremendous amount of personal political capital in the effort, featuring it in his 2005 State of the Union address and holding carefully choreographed town meetings to simulate public support for the idea.

Most of the press corps expected the debate to be a painful defeat for Democrats. Not only were moderates predicted to jump ship and join with Republicans to support the president's plan, but Social Security—one of the foundational blocks of the New Deal social compact—would be irrevocably changed. But then a funny thing happened. Reid and Pelosi managed to keep the members of their caucuses united in opposition. Day after day they launched coordinated attacks on Bush's "risky" proposal. Without a single Democrat willing to sign on and give a bipartisanship veneer of credibility, the private accounts plan slowly came to be seen by voters for what it was: another piece of GOP flimflam.

As the privatization ship began sinking, Republicans challenged Democrats to develop their own plan, and when none was forthcoming, pundits whacked the minority party for being without ideas. But not putting forth a plan was the plan. It meant that once the bottom fell out on public support for Bush's effort—which it did by early summer—Democrats couldn't be pressured to work with Republicans to form a compromise proposal. It was a brilliant tactical maneuver that resulted in a defeat at least as decisive as the Republicans' successful effort to kill Clinton's health-care plan.
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