Relax, Democrats -- It Won't Be That Horrible

The realities of governing will slow down the GOP juggernaut.

MARGARET CARLSON

Los Angeles Times

November 11, 2004

"Nino Scalia for chief justice. Let the healing begin." That's the mixed message that Democrats hear no matter what's being said, because it's crazy-making time, that period when the other side has won but has not yet signaled how much pain will be inflicted on the losers: Chief Justice Scalia (or Clarence Thomas), more tax cuts, more deficits, more invasions — both of the privacy and war kind.

If my stack of invites is any indication, Democrats are booking most of the conference rooms in Washington to confront their fears (and write fundraising letters based on them) and ask, ad infinitum, "Whither Goes Our Party?" Oh, the recriminations, the breast beating, the soul searching — to the extent Democrats have one to search.

For Democrats, it's been a bumpy road from "I Have a Dream" to Kerry's "I Have a Plan." Democratic senators from red states up in '06 should think hard about their every vote or they will find themselves Bushwhacked by a challenger loaded up with saddlebags of Pioneer dollars. Rank-and-file Democrats feel a political Rapture coming that's likely to leave them in a bad place.

Of course, Democrats are operating on a dearth of information. The president has done little to tip his hand, except say things like "I earned capital in the campaign — political capital — and now I intend to spend it. It is my style," which actually cost him some capital to say. Yes, nude-statue-shrouding and Geneva-Convention-ignoring John Ashcroft will be leaving the Cabinet, presumably because Bush asked him to. There's nothing to be read into Commerce Secretary Don Evans leaving, except it's time to return to the private sector. Bush must be pleased with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, despite Paul Bremer's admission that Rumsfeld sent too few troops to secure Iraq and despite Abu Ghraib, because the president made it clear in his first postelection press conference that Rumsfeld was not leaving soon.

Worrying is one way for Democrats to fill these slow postelection days. But as much as I like seeing a party that's disappointed me berate itself, I don't think it's going to be as awful as its members fear. Well before Democrats find themselves some good ideas, Republicans may find that some of theirs are bad as they, in fact, have to deliver to their various constituencies. Part of the agenda will be stopped by reality: Unless Bush has a few trillion stashed away, he doesn't have the money for Social Security privatization, healthcare savings accounts or making those tax cuts permanent. It also takes money to extend the flawed No Child Left Behind (that's why so many children have been).

And the anchor of the agenda — right-wing appointments to the Supreme Court — may well be stopped by Republican fear of a splinter in their own coalition. The court presents a dilemma for Republicans. It's a zero-sum game. If evangelicals win, moderates lose. Until now, there's always been a reason why the Bushes couldn't do more than regret abortion. The Bushes finessed the pro-choice voters with a wink from Barbara and now Laura, which signaled that nothing threatening was going to happen on their watch. There's no quicker way for soccer moms to be reborn than to convene a 5-4 pro-life vote on the Supreme Court. Surely if Karl Rove is smart enough to find and roust out all those underperforming rural voters, he's smart enough to remember those millions of less voluble but more numerous Republicans who know the way to their suburban voting booths without any help and whose desertion would be a catastrophe. It's why Bush talks more about a "culture of life" than about a culture of pro-life.

Democrats don't have much to give shape to their dread. The only event so far is how Bush treated Sen. Arlen Specter when the Pennsylvania Republican suggested that the president should maybe send up reasonable nominees for the high court or face filibusters that a 55-vote GOP majority couldn't overcome. You'd think Specter had said he liked foreign-policy maven Barbra Streisand's music. Smacked down — he was threatened with missing out on his rightful claim to chair the Judiciary Committee — Specter backed down.

But if Specter gets his chairmanship — and Orrin Hatch, who's rarely wrong on such matters, says he will — I'd score one for the moderates and a sign that Bush sees the peril in delivering the court to his right wing. To those Democrats belaboring their lot in overheated hotel rooms, there are advantages to not having to actually govern. You can watch the other side make choices that splinter its coalition while you rebuild yours. So plant yourself in front of C-SPAN and watch the drama. It's mostly beyond your control but may not be beyond your advantage. Stay tuned. And let the healing begin.