Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Will Democrats Resist What Republicans Couldn’t in 1998?

By Stuart Rothenberg

So far, the Democratic establishment has wisely resisted the temptation to make personal attacks on the president or to respond to the call for President Bush’s impeachment emanating from the party’s vocal “progressive” wing.

But it could prove to be increasingly difficult for party leaders to keep their members in line as liberal Web loggers, anti-war lefties, Bush haters and grass-roots activists — all who believe that their party has failed to show backbone on the issue — turn up the heat and demand confrontation.

Just last week, former radio talk show host Tony Trupiano was endorsed by ImpeachPAC, a new political action committee that endorses only Congressional candidates who “support the immediate and simultaneous impeachment of George Bush and [Vice President] Dick Cheney for their Iraq War lies.”

Trupiano, you may recall, was one of the Congressional challengers listed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as among its “strong candidates for change.” He is the likely Democratic nominee against Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) in a GOP-leaning district.

Democratic strategists surely haven’t forgotten 1998, when Republicans were so rabidly anti-Bill Clinton that they pushed impeachment when a majority of voters apparently wanted no part of a last-resort constitutional remedy. GOP attacks on then-President Clinton made them appear petty, partisan and more interested in hurting the president than improving the country.

Instead of picking up a handful of House seats in an off-year election when the opposing party controlled the White House, Republicans lost five seats.

The same thing could happen again, though with the roles reversed, if Democrats look to be more interested in taking their pound of flesh than in getting the country headed back in the right direction. That is why the party’s best strategy this cycle is to be respectful of the president while taking strong exception to his policies and his performance in office.

When only three self-marginalized Democratic Reps. — Georgian Cynthia McKinney, New Yorker José Serrano and Florida’s Robert Wexler — can support a resolution for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, you know that party leaders understand the need to appear measured and thoughtful when it comes to the handling of U.S. troops in the field. But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) recent adoption of Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha’s “get out of Iraq now” position raises some questions about whether the Democrats will continue to show restraint.

For the DCCC, then, Trupiano’s endorsement by ImpeachPAC poses something of a conundrum.

Do you stick with a guy who is calling for the simultaneous impeachment of the president and vice president and who calls impeachment “a nonpartisan idea” and “the way to hold the government accountable”? Do you keep him on your list of strong challengers, when you know that appears to stamp him with the committee’s seal of approval?

For the DCCC, the best tactic may well be to simply ignore the flap that will likely be created when the National Republican Congressional Committee and political reporters press DCCC bigwigs about Trupiano’s endorsement by ImpeachPAC.

That’s the advice veteran Democratic operatives offered when I asked them what the DCCC might do.

“It will become an issue inside the campaign, but it isn’t an issue for the DCCC any more than any other thing that happens in another candidate’s campaign,” said one operative who called the decision to accept the ImpeachPAC’s $2,100 “a mistake by a first-time candidate,” given the district’s makeup.

Another veteran Democratic campaign professional agreed, saying, “If I were at the DCCC, I’d say let’s keep our heads down at least unless it becomes a story. Then we may have to deal with it.

“But,” added the Democrat, “if I were at the NRCC, I’d be screaming bloody murder that the candidate was an extremist.”

The DCCC is in this bind, frankly, because it is unlikely to risk angering its bloggers and activists, who would likely go ballistic if the committee started to distance itself from Trupiano or his comments on the war.

For his part, Trupiano isn’t apologetic about the endorsement and doesn’t see it as a big deal. “What’s the shame in wanting to talk about truth and transparency in government?” he told me last week in a telephone interview. But Trupiano noted that his top issue is jobs.

Trupiano is only one candidate for Congress, and he isn’t making party policy. But if he isn’t an anomaly — if other candidates (or incumbent Members of Congress) echo the ImpeachPAC line — the DCCC could be faced with a more serious problem.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on December 5, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.