Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Democratic divide, redux

I recently wrote a column about the rudderless Washington Democrats, and was promptly informed by a number of Democrats that the premise was wrong, and that, in fact, the Democrats have never been more united. Senator Frank Lautenberg echoed this argument in a letter to the editor.
But reality contradicts their argument.
Let's just go to the videotape. On Fox News Sunday this morning, the subject of Dick Cheney's hunting accident came up. Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, a 2008 presidential hopeful, was asked whether he agreed with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who last Thursday denounced Cheney's five-day silence as testament to his "arrogance of power" and his desire to operate "above the law." Bayh, in response, did not demonstrate that the Democrats are more united than ever. Instead, he dumped all over Pelosi.
OK, he did try to soften the dumping by saying that he had "a respectful difference of opinion on the magnitude of this issue." But he proceeded to say that her remark "goes to show how out of touch Washington is with the rest of this country," that she made "a mountain out of a molehill," and that when Democrats do things like that, "we run the risk of damaging our own credibility with mainstream America."
Bayh is a guy to watch in the early manueverings for the '08 nomination. He sits low in the polls at the moment, far behind Hillary Clinton, but these surveys are useless at this stage, because they're mostly about name recognition. Bayh, who hails from Indiana, is a red-state Democratic senator who also served several terms as a red-state governor, and therefore he could get traction with moderates/centrists in the party who want to prioritize the wooing of red-state voters (instead of currying favor with the liberal netroots/blogosphere). Bayh, who voted to authorize President Bush to wage war in Iraq, in the past has willingly picked fights with the antiwar liberal wing; I remember a Philadelphia event in 2003 when Bayh dumped on candidate Howard Dean for moving leftward.
If Bayh - or other potential candidates with red-state profiles, such as Virginia's Mark Warner - gain momentum in the runup to the '08 primary season, it will be instructive to watch the reaction of the grassroots liberal activists. Will they view Bayh or Warner as sufficiently hostile to Bush -- or too conciliatory? The potential for Democratic disunity is obvious.

On another Sunday morning matter: The record demonstrates that the Bush administration is almost congenitally incapable of admitting error on anything, so you know that something cataclysmic must have occurred if a mistake is being acknowledged. That cataclysm was Katrina.
It was stunning today to see Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff utter these sentences on Meet the Press: "In the evacuation, we really fell short...We didn't have assets on the ground...There are some areas, including disaster management, where we have a lot more to do." And here's my favorite: "This is an immature department."
Asked when all those taxpayer billions will bring maturity, Chertoff said, "this is a process that will take a little bit of time" - not a particularly hopeful remark, since he also observed that the maturity process will not be completed before the next hurricaine season.
If that's true, the Bush administration might want to hope for benign weather, because a new poll indicates that two-thirds of Americans (including 64 percent of swing-voting independents) remain troubled by the Bush team's handling of Katrina. Activists on the left and right might care most about ideology in politics, but most Americans probably care most about competence.