Coming Unhinged

Posted: Nov 03, 2005 12:05 AM

Momentum in politics often shifts when a political leader or party overplays their hand. When Republicans rushed to pass legislation to prolong the life of brain-damaged Terri Schiavo earlier this year, I noted that much of the public saw it as grandstanding. I also wrote that the beginning of current GOP woes started with the party's Schiavo strategy.

 Now the Democrats may be having their turn at costly misjudgment. Their closed-door meeting of Democrats-only in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday of this week was designed with drama in mind. They wanted to bring renewed attention to their claim that the Republicans are still stonewalling an investigation into the intelligence used to justify the Iraq war.

 The stunt achieved nothing. If anything, it may one day be looked back on as the day the American public started to take a more positive view of President Bush and the Republicans again.

 Yes, a White House indictment and a withdrawn Supreme Court nominee have Republicans on the run.

 Even so, the public often senses when opportunistic politicians are trying to reach too far to score partisan blows.

 There is now evidence that public support for the Iraq war may be making a slight comeback. Iraqis recently voted to approve a constitution. Now there are hints from the White House that modest numbers of U.S. troops might start to come home before Christmas.

 Meanwhile, all the "who shot John" questions about prewar intelligence on weapons of mass destruction don't move the public. Most people know already that the weapons aren't there. Those who still support the war do so for other reasons.

 Most who oppose it do so because of American casualties -- WMDs or not. Media have emphasized those casualties almost to the exclusion of any other news from the war front, good or bad. Others condemn the war because they say the American government is spending too much time and money helping other countries and not enough improving its own.

 But even blood-happy media had to report the successful constitutional referendum; the one that even Saddam Hussein's Sunnis participated in. The subtext of these reports is that some form of democracy may actually be taking hold in Iraq. (And that voter participation in Iraq exceeds participation in America.)

 The Democrats were handed Republican scandals and missteps on a silver platter. But they have managed to fumble them. Now the Democrats are appearing to many to be more concerned with being politically destructive than being policy constructive; and in failing to support American troops in the field in what may be the months of ultimate decision in Iraq.

 Public political moods are cyclical. My guess is that last week -- with its indictment of Scooter Libby and Harriet Miers' withdrawal of her consideration for the Supreme Court -- was probably the nadir of the Bush presidency. From here, the White House may be about to enjoy the American people's instinct to rally around a beleaguered president when they think attacks on him have crossed over to the gratuitous.

 A classic example of this phenomenon was the decision in 1998 by special prosecutor Ken Starr to make public his report on alleged misdeeds and possible crimes by then-President Clinton in the events leading up to Clinton's impeachment.

 Top Republican leaders felt that by releasing the Starr Report's details, including fairly graphic descriptions of alleged sexual misconduct, Clinton's polling numbers would plummet and within a week he would be asked to resign by top Democratic leaders. (Let me assure you this scenario is fact, not speculation.)

 The opposite happened. The public viewed the GOP as going too far in hunting for Clinton's hide. Most people sympathized with Clinton and subsequently awarded him with amazingly high approval ratings.

 Did he deserve that new support of the people? Probably not. But that's the way it is in the game of politics and the people.

 That brings us back to the Democrats' parliamentary temper tantrum this week. It was silly, pointless and transparently a cheap shot.

 Worse for the Democrats, they may now have to rethink how stridently they should oppose Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. They have to consider that they now may be seen as rock-throwers more concerned with poking around in the ashes of the past than in lighting fires for the future.

 And President Bush may be the beneficiary. Just when he needs it most.