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Headlines Aside, GOP Still Holds Strategic Advantage on the Hill

Last month, the partisan jockeying in Washington was more high-stakes poker than horse race; and a good case can be made that when Congress returns this week from its Memorial Day recess, Republicans come back to Capitol Hill still holding the stronger hand.

That doesn’t mean they haven’t been struggling in the polls as of late. They have, but Democrats ought to take heed of an old saying in poker, “If you’re in a card game and you don’t know who the sucker is, you’re it.”

Clinging to the poll numbers like Paris Hilton to a Bentley, crowing Democrats are misreading their strategic position. Yes, Republicans have slipped some, but Democrats in those same polls have not made significant gains. In fact, in the most recent Democracy Corps poll, a Democratic survey, Republicans had a 45 percent to 36 percent favorable/unfavorable rating while Democrats limped in at 39 percent to 36 percent on the same question.

It’s not surprising. The Democrats’ weak position is directly attributable to their total inability to act like a national opposition party which, by definition, must offer voters an alternative vision to be successful. So far, the Democrats have failed miserably to even engage in the battle of ideas, and voters know it.

They may not like everything Republicans are doing, but they know the difference between opposition and obstruction, between political debate and sophomoric contradiction. In the past month, voters saw Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his not-so-merry band of brothers and sisters go to the mattresses on judges rather than offer serious policy alternatives on major issues. Where did Reid’s judicial attack plan get them? Outbid and outplayed.

By threatening the “constitutional” option, by forcing Democrats to either filibuster or compromise, the Republican leadership has created the most favorable political environment for President Bush’s judicial appointments in four years. Now, at least three of the most hotly disputed judges will get their floor vote, but more important, every judge in the future will be accorded the same privilege of an up-or-down vote. With perfect timing, last week, the White House indicated it will send a long list of judges to the Hill soon for action under the new “rules.”

Only under “extreme circumstances” can Democrats filibuster a judicial nominee; and should the opposition violate its own agreement, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has already indicated that the constitutional option remains a viable response. Ronald Reagan’s famous “Dirty Harry” steal comes to mind, “Go ahead. Make my day.” It was a winning strategic position for the Gipper on taxes, and it can be equally effective for Senate Republicans.

In truth, by forcing Democrats to put up or shut up, to filibuster or vote, Frist called Reid’s bluff, and in the end the Minority Leader folded. Reid tried mightily to claim victory, but there is no denying the strategic advantage Republicans now enjoy.

But, you don’t have to believe me. In a statement harshly criticizing the agreement, the Congressional Black Caucus said, “This deal is more of a capitulation than a compromise.” This stinging rebuke, however, reflected that more than a few disgruntled Members are off the rhetorical reservation.

The Democrat caucuses on both sides of the Hill are suffering from serious stress cracks in party unity, driven by the ideological differences that are undermining the Democrats’ ability to act as a national opposition party.

When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says the Republicans’ bankruptcy bill would create “modern-day indentured servants” and her No. 2, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and 72 other Democrats vote for it, she’s left slowly twisting in the wind. In earlier Congresses, Hoyer abandoned Pelosi on such key votes as the Homeland Security Act and the 9/11 Recommendations Implementation Act.

Significant numbers of House and Senate Democrats, many who must survive in red states won handily by Bush, have voted with Republicans on a wide range of key issues from tort reform, permanent repeal of the death tax, and immigration reforms to abortion notification. Forty-one House Democrats even voted for the comprehensive Republican energy bill, one of the president’s top priorities.

With their constant stream of anti-Bush invective that questions the motives behind most of the Republican legislative agenda, Reid and Pelosi have only added to what appears to be a growing liberal/centrist fissure within their own caucuses and the party as a whole. Often, in a divisive situation, when a political party is without a national spokesperson, the party chairman steps in to bridge differing viewpoints with calm and reason. This, of course, automatically eliminates Howard Dean, the poster child for foot-in-mouth disease.

Dean has only added to the Democrats’ problems in recent weeks as an equal opportunity insulter — making head-shaking comments about everyone from African-Americans to George Bush to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Last week, Dean, who was raised on Park Avenue, said Republicans could stand in voting lines “because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives.”

His suggestion that DeLay serve his “prison sentence” in Texas was even too much for Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.); and when Barney Frank defends Tom DeLay either we’ve all slipped into a parallel universe or Democrats have some problems. And they do, despite all the focus on Republicans.

The real story of the last month is the implosion of the Democratic Party — Reid in strategic retreat on judges, Democrat defections on key issues, Dean making headlines for all the wrong things and party fundraising in the tank.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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