The Agenda

Amy Sullivan on the Democratic Successes of 2005 and 2006

Earlier today, the very wise Sean Trende expressed the view that a scenario in which Democrats retain control of the U.S. Senate and Mitt Romney wins the White House would be recipe for gridlock and a poisonous political climate. In one tweet, he observed that Republicans had derided Democrats as “the Party of No” during President Bush’s second term. That reminded me of Amy Sullivan’s May 2006 Washington Monthly article “Not as Lame as You Think” on how Democrats mastered “the art of opposition,” an article that shrewdly anticipated the enormous gains congressional Democrats made in midterm elections later that year.

What the GOP did so brilliantly in 1994 was exploit Clinton’s weaknesses (his 1993 tax increase, his wife’s failed health-care initiative), as well as the sense among voters that reigning congressional Democrats had become complacent and corrupt (reviving the Keating Five and House banking scandals). Well, guess what? This is precisely what congressional Democrats have been getting better at doing over the past 18 months. And just as most observers missed the coming Republican revolution in 1994, so they’re missing a similar insurgency today.

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. [Emphasis added]

I really enjoyed this last paragraph, as it speaks to Schumer’s skill in shaping the news cycle. It is worth recalling that Dubai Ports World is a reputable multinational business enterprise that had no credible connection to terrorism. The only connection, as I understand it, is that DP World is a kind of state-sponsored enterprise that is owned by Dubai World, an investment fund owned by the Emirate of Dubai. Dubai is a member state of the United Arab Emirates, an ally of the United States. DP World operates ports across the world, including several facilities in Canada, Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Britain, Spain, and Turkey, all of which are close allies of the United States, among many other countries.

Sullivan’s most potent example of how Democrats mastered the art of opposition was the unified Democratic resistance to Social Security reform:

Most of the press corps expected the debate [over Social Security reform] 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. [Emphasis added]

Sullivan’s article sheds light on President Obama’s reelection campaign, and potentially on how congressional Democrats might proceed under a future Republican administration.


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