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... Or a Rational Response?
by E. J. Dionne
Washington Post, pg. A19
December 30, 2004

Every action, said the political pundit Sir Isaac Newton, produces an equal and opposite reaction.

The year 2003 will be remembered as the time when Democrats decided to fight back against George W. Bush after coddling and even embracing him in 2002. This whiplash will mean some surprising things for 2004.

It's hard to think of any other president who has gone so quickly from being so unifying to being so divisive. There was hardly a soul this side of Noam Chomsky who didn't support Bush for some time after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and didn't support the war on the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even Democrats who never conceded that Bush had legitimately won the 2000 election wanted to give Bush a chance to lead the country out of crisis.

So what went wrong? Unrequited bipartisanship. Implicitly, the Democrats expected that the new situation would produce a new Bush, less partisan and less ideological. For a few months after the attacks, that was the Bush who showed up to work every day. He and the Democrats did a lot of business together, and the country seemed happy.

It could not last, because Bush didn't want to be Dwight D. Eisenhower, a nonpartisan leader who unified the country without being much help to his party. Ticket splitting began in a big way during the 1950s when millions of Democrats went for Ike but stuck with their party on the rest of the ballot. Bush wanted to realign the country and create a Republican majority for bold conservative policies at home and abroad.

And so, even as he was shoveling money out the door for national defense and new engagements abroad, Bush went for more tax cuts for the wealthy. He moved from Afghanistan to Iraq and ridiculed Democrats who held off on full endorsement of the war against Saddam Hussein pending strong United Nations support. In September 2002, shortly before the midterm elections, Bush mocked such Democrats as saying, according to Bush: "Oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I'm going to wait for somebody else to act."

And just before the elections, Bush went after Democrats for their stand on the homeland security bill, turning the very ground on which bipartisanship had been built into an electoral battlefield.

Republicans won in 2002, but Bush lost most Democrats forever. Conservative critics of "Bush hatred" like to argue that opposition to the president is a weird psychological affliction. It is nothing of the sort. It is a rational response to getting burned. They are, as a friend once put it, biting the hand that slapped them in the face.

No one understood this sense of betrayal better or earlier than Howard Dean. Dean's candidacy took off because many in the Democratic rank and file were furious that Washington Democrats allowed themselves to be taken to the cleaners. Many of Dean's current loyalists had been just as supportive of Bush after Sept. 11 because they, too, felt that doing so was patriotic. So Dean also spoke to their personal sense of grievance.

Here's what's interesting for 2004: The conventional wisdom, fed by shrewd Republican operatives and commentators, is that Democrats, so out there in their antipathy for Bush, will push their party into an extremist wonderland and lose white men, security moms and anybody else who does not share their desire for revenge.

The opposite is true. Democrats will not have to spend inordinate amounts of time or money in this election year "uniting their base." Opposition to Bush has already done that.

In the 2000 election, Bush had an advantage over Al Gore because Republican rank-and-filers so hated Bill Clinton -- and so wanted to win -- that they gave Bush ample room to sound as moderate as John Breaux or Olympia Snowe. Bush's 2000 Republican National Convention hid the base behind the appealing face of inclusiveness and outreach. Gore, in the meantime, had to claw back the votes of liberals and lefties who had strayed to Ralph Nader.

This time the Democrats will have most of the election year to appeal to swing voters. Democrats are so hungry to beat Bush that they will let their nominee do just about anything, even be pragmatic and shrewd.

That's why 2004 will be very different from 2003. Democrats who loved Dean's attacks on Bush this year now want Dean to prove he can beat him. Dean's opponents know this, which is why their core case is that Dean can't win. And watch for the appearance of the new, pragmatic Howard Dean, the doctor with an unerring sense of his party's pulse.

Posted: January 3, 2004


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