How the GOP Gets Its Way

It would be easy to accept the storyline that President Bush nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court out of weakness because he knew that, as a woman without a long paper trail, she would likely be confirmed.

It would also be wrong.

Yes, Bush (with his 37 percent approval rating, according to a CBS News poll earlier this month), members of the White House staff (facing possible indictments in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame) and Republican leaders in Congress (former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, specifically) are facing some tough times.

But that doesn't mean they haven't won some big fights this year in Washington, and or they won't win some more. And they're doing it with a sneaky, yet ultimately successful strategy: appearing to lose even when they win.

If that sounds a little strange, consider a few recent episodes. Barring some yet-unknown scandal or a highly unimpressive performance at her confirmation hearings, Miers will join the court as the nation's third female associate justice. And despite the sour grapes of some conservatives who want a candidate with a known conservative record, they'll get a justice who will almost assuredly vote their way on issues such as abortion.

On Tuesday, we learned that in 1989, Miers vowed to support a constitutional ban on abortion except when the mother's life is at risk. That's no surprise, given White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's earlier such assurance to Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Vice President Dick Cheney's promise to Rush Limbaugh that he wouldn't be disappointed.

So, Bush may be taking some heat for his choice now, but in the end, he gets what he wants -- a nominee who tips the court's balance.

Earlier this year, Republicans threatened to "go nuclear" and shut down the Senate if they didn't get an up-or-down vote on some of Bush's most controversial judicial nominees (even though Democrats had approved scores of other judges). But when push came to shove, three judges whose nominations Democrats had until then successfully stalled finally got confirmation votes. Republicans may have appeared embarrassed procedurally -- a bipartisan group of senators forged a compromise -- but the end result is they found a way to get some of their judges seated.

Then there was Frist's split with Bush on the issue of support for stem-cell research. Perhaps Frist was trying to bolster his medical credentials after he fumbled the videotape diagnosis of Terri Schiavo, but his position was basically meaningless because Congress doesn't have enough votes to override Bush's threatened veto. (The Senate has yet to vote on the bill, and although the House passed it by 238-194 in May, that's far short of the two-thirds majority needed to overrule Bush.) Again, Republicans looked like they suffered a political blow, but in the end, their position prevailed.

How, and why, does this keep happening? First, Republicans realize that it's the outcome, not the process, that matters. In other words, they're willing to rough up their team and take a loss in the first or second quarter if they know they'll probably still win the game.

Second, Democrats are spooked by the idea of being called obstructionists -- after all, that's how former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., lost his seat last fall. So in trying not to be against what Republicans are for, Democrats end up doing some of the GOP's work for it. Who has been defending Miers as conservative Republicans rip into her? Well, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., echoed First Lady Laura Bush's point that criticism of Miers smacks of sexism. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who recommended Miers for the court, issued a complimentary statement about her that quickly became part of a Republican National Committee release.

Third, Democrats are too anxious to claim any kind of victory, even if it's the Pyrrhic kind. This is somewhat understandable, given Democrats' inability, as the minority party, to prevail on many issues. But when they claimed a win on the filibuster issue by saying they saved a 200-year-old Senate tradition, they also boxed themselves into a corner. Pledging not to filibuster a judicial nominee unless that person trips the "extraordinary circumstances" clause of the agreement means judges who Democrats would normally oppose will likely slip through the confirmation process.

The problem for Democrats is that they haven't learned two lessons that put Newt Gingrich and Republicans into power in 1995. First, don't help the folks in charge. Second, offer a distinct alternative, and positive, vision for where to take the country. Without that, there's no reason for voters to end the majority's reign. The party has had almost five years since Al Gore's loss in 2000 to develop a coherent message, and voters are still waiting.

It helps, to be sure, to run in an election where the president is considered politically weakened, as Bill Clinton was in 1994, and when the party controlling Congress is vulnerable to charges that it is arrogant and out-of-touch with voters, as in 1994. Assuming things don't improve for Bush and Republicans much in the next year (a big assumption), Democrats should have the wind at their backs on these issues. But to truly become a majority party, they need to do more than look like they're winning arguments in Washington; they need to actually prevail.

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