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May 1, 2005 -- Mark Satin, Editor
American people tell Congress in poll after poll: Enough is enough!
by John Avlon
When historians look back to judge when the Republican Congress of 2005 over-reached and provoked a political backlash, they may look at the past month as the tipping point.
Between Tom DeLay and Terry Schiavo, it's been a bad spring for Congress. And this month things look set to get worse, with the Republican leadership gearing up for a political full court press to enact the so-called "nuclear option," ending the traditional filibuster rules for judicial nominations.
Democrats are preparing for a protracted political street fight with very little left to lose. Republicans are betting the rewards will outweigh the risks in their attempt to recast the judiciary rightward -- especially with Supreme Court seats at stake. Compromise and civility are endangered species in this Congress.
In another time of contentious one-party control of government, the humorist Will Rogers wrote, "This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when a baby gets hold of a hammer."
Enough is enough!
Today's heavy-handed tactics have awakened the American people enough to send a clear message to Congress -- put the hammer down, stop screaming the party-approved talking points, and start working together.
Fifty-one percent of people disapprove of the job Congress is currently doing -- 59% of Democrats and a surprisingly 39% of Republicans, according to an April 18 CBS News Poll. Sixty-two percent of the American people polled say the country is on the wrong track.
The Terry Schiavo intervention is the single congressional action that most sticks out in people's minds, while administration efforts to sell partial Social Security privatization have so far been unsuccessful. With a quintupling of pork-barrel spending, the principle of fiscal responsibility has been thrown out the window, while the bankruptcy bill sailed through in time for middle-class families to feel more heat as interest rates rise.
President Bush's approval rating has been below 50% since January. It is not a picture that should radiate confidence among Republicans.
The current disaffection appears to only have been compounded by the congressional leadership's attempt to promote the nuclear option by pandering to the religious right, trotting out Senator Frist to give pre-recorded speeches on the subject to congregations in an effort labeled "Justice Sunday -- Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week shows that an overwhelming 66% of Americans oppose changing Senate rules to end the filibuster option against judicial nominees.
The continuing ethical problems surrounding Mr. Frist's congressional counterpart, the Republican House majority leader, Tom DeLay, have not helped matters either. Mr. DeLay has been a hyper-partisan warrior for his 25-year congressional career, earning the nickname "The Hammer" and keeping a leather bull-whip in his office as a symbol of his ability to get Republican congressmen in line.
Equally at home with fellow fundamentalist Christians or lobbyists on K Street, Mr. DeLay has recently come under fire for paying his wife and daughter $500,000 from his political action committee and taking overseas trips paid for by a Russian oil concern.
A Justice Department investigation into a former close friend and fund-raiser Jack Abramoff for defrauding American Indian clients threatens to implicate Mr. DeLay as well. Democrats could not ask for a better popular symbol of Republican congressional excesses.
Lesson from the recent past
When a single political party controls all the branches of government, it is difficult to resist the temptation to impose its ideological agenda. But when a president and Congress overreach it can provoke a lasting backlash that leads to the next realignment of politics.
The last time a president was re-elected while increasing his party's control of Congress was 1964 -- Lyndon's Johnson's Democrats had just handed the conservative advocate of "extremism," Barry Goldwater, an unprecedented defeat. Liberals thought they were unstoppable and unleashed a barrage of social legislation without any effective check from the Republican Party.
The backlash began during the midterm elections of 1966, with moderate Republicans like Howard Baker and Ed Brooke being elected to the Senate and governor's mansions across the country. In 1968, Richard Nixon became the second Republican since Herbert Hoover to win the White House; only two Democrats have won it since.
The lesson is clear: Beware the arrogance of power. The American people have a way of stepping in to restore some balance.
The moderates’ moment?
For better or worse, the current crop of Democratic leadership seems spectacularly unsuited to be the beneficiaries of popular disaffection with Congress.
The Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, and the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, are unsympathetic figures, while the assumption that the polarizing figure of Hillary Clinton will be the Democrats' presidential nominee in 2008 is likely to keep common-sense centrists unsatisfied with the alternative.
Into this atmosphere of heated congressional partisanship and political stalemate, two thoughtful columnists -- the Los Angeles Times's Ron Brownstein and the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne -- last week called for a third-party revolt of the moderates.
If the Senate proves determined to "go nuclear," it may unleash a chain reaction of events that will change the political landscape more fundamentally than either party expects.
John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001. He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).
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