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Published: Sunday, 1/10/2010

Dems suffering mathematics of division

REEL the tape back one full year (and forgive the antiquated metaphor, please). The Democrats are euphoric, excited as they haven't been since 1960, full of resolve as they haven't been since 1944. The Republicans? Their despair is as deep as it's been since 1964, and a cloud of hopelessness seems to hover over their heads, though plainly this is a party without anyone at its head, a party with neither a leader nor a strategy.

That paragraph sure was a bracing look at a world long disappeared. Had we suggested a year ago that by today the party full of second thoughts would be the Democrats, you might have put the odds at 250,000-1, which is NASA's current estimate of the chances the asteroid Apophis might hit the Earth in 2036.

And had we proffered the notion that the Republicans would be the ones with a sense of purpose and a spirit of unity, you might have put those odds at, say, 333,000-1, which is NASA's estimate of the chances that the asteroid will strike the Earth when it passes this way in 2068.

And yet the party with its head in the sky right now - though not worried about asteroids - is the GOP, and those who are buried in earthly worries are the Democrats.

The Democrats have the momentum, to be sure; they'll pass a health-care overhaul sometime this month and claim victory, and their views will prevail on issue after issue on Capitol Hill, mostly by virtue of their lopsided committee ratios in the House and their 60-vote majority in the Senate. By any ordinarily reasonable measure, you'd rather be the Democrats right now than the Republicans.

But something happened to the Republicans on the way to the certain oblivion the smart set foresaw for the party. They found a reason for being, or at least a satisfying tactic. They became the "party of no" again, this time with brio.

Here there is unusual, bipartisan consensus.

The Democrats are describing the Republicans that way, thinking it is a slur. (The implication: The Republicans are standing in the way of progress and of history.) The Republicans are embracing the charge, considering it a compliment. (The implication: They're trying to save the country from change it doesn't want and can't afford.)

Here's how Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma put it on the Senate floor:

"When your child's misbehaving, you say 'no.' When your adolescent child is making bad judgments, you say 'no.' When somebody's stealing something from somebody else; i.e., liberty, you say 'no.' When you're stealing the future, in terms of opportunity, we should say 'no.' When you're creating a government-centric health-care system, rather than a patient-centered health-care system, 'no' is a great word."

Meanwhile, on the side that has the votes and the historic President, the sense of betrayal is palpable, reminiscent of the joke, sometimes attributed to William F. Buckley, Jr., that Republicans used to tell around 1965: They told me if I voted for Barry Goldwater, we'd find ourselves in a land war in Southeast Asia. I did, and that's what we got.

The 2010 version that captures the Democrats' disappointment might be: They told me that if I voted for John McCain I'd get a phony health-care overhaul and a deepening war in Central Asia. I did, and

On the surface, of course, the Democrats have enormous unity. They wrangled the 60 votes they needed to forestall a health-care filibuster in the Senate, though the way they pacified Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska gave pacification a bad name, even in once-isolationist Nebraska. But the activist wing of the party wants a far bigger role for the federal government in health care than congressional Democrats are likely to approve in this month's House-Senate negotiations.

Meanwhile, there are dangerous signs of disquiet in the party, more than ever a biracial coalition. Blacks and other minorities are more likely to advocate an aggressive role for Washington in health care and other issues than are whites, according to a National Journal study, which also shows that more than two-fifths of the Blue Dogs, the conservative-leaning Democrats, were sent to Washington from places with populations less than 20 percent minority.

And though the Republicans are not immune to intraparty struggles - there has seldom been a special House election quite so wonderfully acrimonious as the struggle on the right in the congressional contest in northern New York State last autumn - Democrats have troubles of their own.

In Colorado, a critical swing state, they worry that the primary challenge mounted against appointed Sen. Michael Bennet by former speaker of the state House Andrew Romanoff is a chilling sign of deeper divisions as the midterm congressional contests approach.

Last week, two Democratic stalwarts, Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, announced they would not seek re-election. The Democrats might keep the Connecticut seat but are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than to keep the North Dakota seat.

The Democrats are facing a problem everyone anticipated - outsized expectations in the wake of Barack Obama's election. But the expectations being tested aren't only the expected ones: the President's sense of inevitability and invincibility. They are far more subtle, growing out of his vow to change how Washington worked.

Some of his supporters interpreted that beguiling siren song to mean that his election marked the end of the Bush-Cheney era, with its unilateralism in foreign policy, its social conservatism in domestic policy, and its tax cuts and business favors in economic policy. But others interpreted the Obama mantra quite differently, and far more dramatically. They thought it meant that the worship of the "deal" would end and that the notion of the "ideal" would prevail.

That didn't happen. In Mr. Obama's Washington, as in Franklin Roosevelt's Washington, and, more tragically, Lyndon Johnson's, the ideal collided with the need for a deal, and the idealists lost every battle, none excepted, to the pragmatists.

The first year of the Obama era turned out to be a fundamental lesson in political science: Politics is practiced by politicians. That's the principal reason for the peculiar state of the nation's civic life today, where the Republicans, without an ounce of power in Washington, are united, and the Democrats, who have all the power, are divided.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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