Monday, December 10, 2007

Another Game of Political Chicken, but With a Twist

By Stuart Rothenberg

Republicans and Democrats are at it again. It’s another game of chicken as the end of the year approaches. Who’ll back down first?

Will Democrats, desperate to pass legislation, give ground on key spending decisions, or will President Bush, weakened by the war and prodded by those GOP legislators who fear Capitol Hill gridlock will cost them even more seats next year, give Congressional Democrats the victories they are demanding?

By all measures, the president doesn’t have many high cards in his hand. His job-approval numbers are terrible. He has little or no clout on Capitol Hill. His party’s poll numbers are already in the tank, with far more voters showing confidence in the Democratic Party than in the GOP.

Democrats, on the other hand, are on the political upswing after last year’s elections. The party’s image is relatively good, and the party’s agenda seems in sync with most voters. The party’s House and Senate campaign committees are flush with cash, and Democratic voters seem enthusiastic and optimistic. Another good Democratic election seems likely, especially if Republicans look to be blocking change and defending the status quo.

Given that political environment, the president has to blink first, right?


The problem for Democrats is that the president has nothing left to lose. With his job ratings hovering between 30 percent and 35 percent, and Bush insistent that his political legacy will ultimately depend on what happens in the Middle East decades from now, what incentive does he have to capitulate and give legislative and political victories to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)?

If you said “none,” buy yourself an ice cream cone.

Just as in the Kris Kristofferson-Janis Joplin song “Me and Bobby McGee,” “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” and that’s why the president is free to act as he has, ignoring Congressional Democrats’ demands the way he has.

Bush’s standing with American voters means that many will blame him for gridlock, since they don’t hold him in high regard and seem to blame him pretty much for everything. But since he’s not running for anything again, he doesn’t have to feel their wrath.

Both Capitol Hill Republicans and GOP voters already have moved on. For them, the Bush administration is yesterday’s news, and they are hoping that the 2008 elections will be as much a referendum on Democrats’ control of Congress — and a choice between the presidential nominees — as a referendum on the Bush years.

Congressional Democrats, of course, aren’t going to warm to the president even if he gives them everything they want during the next nine months. Instead, they’ll simply brag that they’ve rolled him when they get what they want. And grass-roots Democrats want Bush’s head much more than they care about legislative victories.

That leaves independents (call them ticket-splitters, swing voters or moderates, if you prefer), whose opinions might be affected by legislative gridlock. Almost all of these voters currently look like Democrats in their attitudes and are likely to blame Bush for anything they don’t like, from Iraq and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to the weather. But they aren’t thrilled with Democrats these days either, and nobody can be certain how they’ll behave when the two parties point fingers at each other.

But won’t Congressional Republicans want to avoid a deadlock, fearing that they’ll be blamed?

Maybe, but the Democratic victory last year has many Republicans believing that the party needs to get back to its traditional opposition to government spending immediately, and GOP legislators who come from reliably Republican districts (or states) figure that they can ride out the next political storm the way they did the last one, after which the political weather will change.

Moreover, the drip, drip, drip of good news from Iraq — lower casualties and the general perception that “the surge is working” — has stiffened GOP backbones and given Republicans a reason to stand with the White House.

As the calendar turns from 2007 to 2008 and the parties pick their nominees for 2008, George W. Bush may seem less and less relevant. Since there probably is nothing that he could do now to alter his reputation significantly, he has little incentive to give Democrats victories on matters where he believes they are fundamentally wrong — just as they have no reason to give him victories on matters with which they deeply disagree with him.

But along the way, someone will blink. Just don’t assume that it can only be the president and his party.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on December 6, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.