The 'loyal opposition' struggles for relevance

Posted: Dec 15, 2004 12:00 AM

It cannot be pleasant to be on a losing track when you are used to winning. Ask the former Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins (4-9 so far) and their Hall of Fame head coach, Joe Gibbs.

Democrats, having started their decline in 1994 and losing more ever since, have announced plans for a set of "hearings" during which they will examine the policies and conduct of the Bush Administration.

This could be a good thing since individuals, like politicians, need people to whom they should be accountable. If the hearings are conducted properly, without rancor and in what seems to be in the best interests of the country, Democrats would perform a valuable service to their party and to the nation.

But if the hearings resemble those conducted on Dec. 8 by Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, which sought to portray the Ohio vote as wrong and, therefore, question the legitimacy of President Bush's re-election, it will be seen as another political ploy and be dismissed by the people Democrats need to reach.

The planned hearings are scheduled to begin next month and organizers say Republicans will be invited to participate (good luck getting any). Suggested topics look like more of the same we have come to expect from Democrats: contract abuses in Iraq, mistakes by the administration in its use of prewar intelligence and misleading cost estimates for the Medicare drug benefit.

(Democrats should be careful with the last point, since it was a Democrat president, Lyndon Johnson, who pushed Medicare through Congress with the promise it wouldn't cost much. Then, it was projected the health benefit would cost $9 billion by 1990. The actual cost was $67 billion. Today, thanks to President Bush's prescription drug benefit, projections for the drug benefit alone are $540 billion over 10 years.)

Senator Byron Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, pledges, "This is not about gotcha politics. . This is about oversight. If the majority party won't do it, we will."

A promise not to engage in "gotcha politics" in Washington has as much credibility as Scott Peterson's "not guilty" plea or Bernie Kerik's marriage vow.

For the sake of "healing" and bipartisanship, let's say Dorgan and company are serious. How should they approach their hearings in a way that would properly hold Republicans accountable, fulfill their role as the "loyal opposition" and benefit the country, if anyone cares about such a thing these days?

Start with the war and what is behind it. Do Democrats recognize evil as a moral concept, or are they willing to negotiate just about anything in their pursuit of lost power? Can Democrats move beyond multilateralism and the ineffectual United Nations and confront evil, as one of their patron saints, Harry Truman, once did?

Dorgan held up a picture of Harry Truman during a Capitol Hill news conference to announce the hearings. But Truman, who ordered Hiroshima and Nagasaki obliterated with nuclear bombs to end the war with Japan and preserve American lives, is about as far from this Democrat Party as East is from West.

Modern Democrats need to break the grip of and Michael Moore and prove they can be trusted with the nation's security by saying how they would fight terrorists and whether they could envision pre-emptive strikes against an enemy.

On Social Security, another topic announced for the hearings, Democrats have repeatedly said they favor the current system, which, like Medicare, is headed for bankruptcy - or substantially higher taxes - if present spending trends continue. It is simply not credible to say that Social Security should not be touched.

Education? Democrats say their hearings will focus on the failure of Republicans to fund the No Child Left Behind law, which called for substantial increases in education funding. Here's a way Democrats can break with Republicans and achieve meaningful results: come out for school choice for the poor.

They won't, of course, because that might cost them the teachers unions. But with many public school teachers now placing their own children in private schools, freeing the poor from the prison of failed public schools would rightly earn Democrats the thanks of generations yet to come.

I can't imagine Democrats taking my advice, but if they are interested in making a difference, instead of making trouble for Republicans, they had better break their habit of opposing for opposition's sake.