The new Democratic-led Congress has a 16 percent approval rating -- no better than the rating of the Republican-led Congress a year ago -- no doubt because voters see members clamoring to score points in the never-ending game of partisan gotcha, instead of working to do what is best for the country. When a politician does try to do what is right, there is too often more downside than upside.
Consider the cheap shots that have come the way of Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Chuck Schumer of New York because they voted to confirm the nomination of now-Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey last week. New York Times columnist Frank Rich compared the Feinstein and Schumer vote to Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf's arrests of judges, lawyers and human-rights activists. A group of Democrats from the left wing of the party is trying to get the California Democratic Party's executive board to censure Feinstein for the Mukasey vote, as well as her vote to confirm federal judge Leslie Southwick in October.
No good deed goes unpunished.
Understand that DiFi is no pushover when it comes to confirming the picks of George W. Bush. Feinstein voted against Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. She was an early and vocal critic of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before he resigned.
When Bush first nominated Mukasey, Feinstein and Schumer joined other Democrats in hailing Mukasey as about the best Bush nominee they could get -- a solid improvement over Gonzales. Schumer explained that while Mukasey, a fellow New Yorker, "is certainly conservative," Mukasey also "would put the rule of law first and show independence from the White House." The National Journal's legal eagle Stuart Taylor Jr. wrote that Mukasey was "a superbly qualified man who has clearly repudiated Bush's previous claims of near-dictatorial powers."
Bush had given the Democrats what they wanted -- a more independent top lawman -- and still it was not good enough. In these hyper-partisan times, that small slice of harmony could not last. When Mukasey told senators that he found waterboarding, the simulated drowning during interrogation, to be "morally repugnant," but refused to classify waterboarding as torture in a legal sense, Democrats went into high-dudgeon mode.
All four senators running in the Democratic presidential primary announced their opposition to Mukasey. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd were unbowed by the fact that Congress has the power to explicitly ban waterboarding, but has failed to do so. The Senate was in danger of self-righteously rejecting a nominee because he refused to say that waterboarding was illegal because Congress failed to pass a law making it so.
Fortunately for the Dems, Schumer and Feinstein came to the rescue. As members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, they voted for Mukasey -- which paved the way for a full Senate vote and, thus, confirmation.
If they had not done so, Bush might have made good on his threat not to name another nominee, leaving acting AG Peter Keisler on the job. "It was a choice between Mukasey and an acting appointment who wouldn't be independent of the Bush administration," Feinstein spokesman Scott Gerber explained. "To her, Mukasey was the better alternative."
This is about more than Democrats versus Republicans. Gonzales was a poor attorney general whose political activities undermined the Department of Justice and led to 10 months of scandal and resignations. Failure to confirm Mukasey would have left the Department of Justice rudderless, with 10 top positions vacant and low morale. That's great news for would-be terrorists and those who would flout civil rights laws.
California Democratic Party adviser Bob Mulholland dismissed the Feinstein censure motion as "ridiculous, going nowhere."
Nonetheless, this "censure Feinstein" movement shows how little upside there is for any politician to work with the other party. Put one toe over the partisan divide, and the political fringe police whip out their whistles.
What voters should be angry about, they remain silent on. The House can pass a pork-filled farm bill, and there was little noise about pork. The four Democrats running for the White House skipped voting on Mukasey -- an important vote -- and that posed no problem.
On the flip side, President Bush probably watched the Schumer-Feinstein pile-on and figured: Why even try to work with Democrats? It's not as if he'll get any credit for it.