Why were the opening months of Bill Clinton’s presidency so rocky and the first 100 days of George W. Bush’s so placid? The Washington Post’s John F. Harris offered this theory last Sunday: A “well-coordinated corps of aggrieved and methodical people” stalked Clinton from the get-go, starting each day by looking for “ways to expose and undermine” him. “Stories like the travel office firings,” wrote Harris, “flamed for weeks instead of receding into yesterday’s news.” This well-coordinated corps–described by Hillary Clinton as “a vast right-wing conspiracy”–kept Clinton on the defensive for eight years.
But, as Harris explains, no analogous gaggle of lefties has dedicated themselves to turning Bush’s molehills into mountains. If a vast left-wing conspiracy did exist, however, it could have easily exploited last week’s firing of Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove by Majority Leader Trent Lott.
The senate parliamentarian serves as arbiter of the Senate’s rules. Although the vote of 60 senators can overrule the parliamentarian’s decision, that seldom happens. What drew Lott’s ire were the parliamentarian’s decisions that made it easier for Democrats to stall the president’s tax and budget bills. (Senate rules generally prevent filibusters on budget and tax bills. And the GOP leadership wanted those rules interpreted as broadly as possible. But Dove didn’t always comply. Earlier he ruled that only one tax bill a year could be immune to a filibuster. And more recently, he ruled that a disaster relief set aside also wouldn’t be getting the no-filibuster free ride.) Desiring more accommodating decisions, he fired Dove.
Is this a scandal? The parliamentarian isn’t supposed to be a rubberstamp for the majority leader, even though the majority leader appoints him. But Lott didn’t break any law in sacking Dove. In a rational universe, Dove’s firing was a one-day story–not pretty, but not the end of the world either, which is exactly the way Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle treated it at a press conference yesterday. Daschle called the firing was “very disappointing and extremely harmful to the process. I don’t think any single dispute with the parliamentarian ever ought to trigger the firing.”
Disappointing? Harmful? You can practically hear Daschle mewling. It’s not that Dems don’t know how to complain, but their complaints tend to focus on wounded feelings of fair play or their opponents’ callousness. They seldom cut at their opponents’ good faith, values, or honesty.
But imagine, for a moment, if Daschle and the Democrats had responded to the firing like Republicans. Daschle would have gone on the Sunday shows and decried the parliamentarian’s ouster as a “Saturday Night Massacre” while other Democrats would call the firing symbolic of the rule-breaking, win-at-any-cost political culture the Republicans flaunted in Florida. The press would respond to the charges by placing the story on Page One, and lefty pundits would describe the firing as an example of the president’s willingness to politicize heretofore nonpartisan institutions for immediate political gain–namely the passage of his controversial $1.6 trillion budget. Lastly, Daschle would demand congressional hearings to investigate Dove’s dismissal–anything to keep Bush and the Republicans on the defensive.
Harris’ Post piece rightly diagnosed the Democrats as suffering from a lack of zeal. But that’s only one of their problems. Modern politics is a 24/7, multimedia game these days, and an essential part of that game is scandal-mongering–90 percent of which is about packaging. And Democrats just don’t seem to have the taste or the talent for this. But there may be hope for them yet. Newt Gingrich is out of work, and Larry Klayman’s Judicial Watch has fallen on hard times. If Daschle is serious about turning things around, maybe he could bring them on as scandal consultants. No questions asked–strictly work-for-hire.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.