Democrats in Disarray

Originally posted: November 12, 2004

John Kerry never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. During the campaign, when President Bush baited him, asking if he had known everything he knew now about Iraq, would he still vote for the war? Kerry said yes. That, said Karl Rove, “was the gift that kept on giving.”

Kerry passed up the opportunity to gather 20 other Democratic senators who also voted to authorize the war and say, “No, Mr. President, your whole case was trumped up. None of it proved out and none of us would have voted with you.”

As the defeated presidential nominee, Kerry has the right to be considered the party’s titular head. With minority leader Tom Daschle gone, he also had a window of opportunity to claim his party’s leadership in the Senate as minority leader.

Instead, he watched as Minority Whip Harry Reid, Daschle’s flunky, gathered the votes to win the job.

It has always been difficult for Democrats to speak with one voice. Now they are assured to speak as a chorus. From the House there will be Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a strong liberal. As head of the Democratic Leadership Council, Evan Bayh holds the mantle of moderate opposition, the get-along-by-going-along crowd. If he wins the party’s national chairmanship in January, Howard Dean will again claim to lead the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.

Democratic presidential hopefuls will soon begin competing for the spotlight. Gov. Ed Rendel of battleground Pennsylvania sees his stock rising. Hispanics proved they are a vital swing constituency, so Gov. Bill Richardson from New Mexico will be heard from. Hillary Clinton will have her say. By dint of his second spot on the 2004 ticket, John Edwards will have his. Al Gore may have an opportunity for an encore on the national stage if he chooses .

The New York Times recently editorialized: “The best chance (the Democrats) have to exercise some form of political relevance in the second Bush term is to use minority power selectively to filibuster objectionable legislation and unacceptable presidential nominees.”

This is how minorities have come to behave in this era of extreme partisanship. Remember, when President Bill Clinton submitted his first budget resolution, which raised taxes, cut the deficit and ushered in the ensuing surpluses, he did so against unanimous GOP opposition in both the House and Senate.

The saddest part of this situation is that Democrats in the Senate have ceded the vitally important post of minority leader to an undistinguished cipher like Harry Reid. In his three terms, Reid mainly has served the mining and gambling interests of Nevada. Most visibly, he fought the establishment of a nuclear waste depository on Yucca Mountain and helped block Indian casinos in California, possible competition to gambling in Reno and Las Vegas.

As Congressional Quarterly puts it, Reid has made a record of working with Republicans, reaching across the aisle to shake hands. This is a promotion earned by doing hundreds of small favors for fellow senators.

That is not what the Democrats need right now. They need backbone and determination to carry forward the debate begun in this campaign. Reid does not have the charisma, the gravitas, the respect to marshal the opposition to an ambitious Bush agenda.

Kerry might have provided that. But he is contemplating a think tank, possibly a political action committee. Contemplating, nuancing, dithering. So now, Kerry returns to the Senate as the junior senator from Massachusetts. And Reid becomes the new gift that keeps on giving.

Ken Bode is Pulliam Professor of Journalism at DePauw University

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