WASHINGTON -- As President Bush prepares for his second term, Democrats in Washington and around the country are organizing for a year of confrontation and resistance, saying they are determined to block Bush's major initiatives and thereby deny him the mandate he has claimed from his re-election victory last November.
The Democrats' mood and posture represent a contrast to that of four years ago, after Bush's disputed victory over Al Gore. Then, despite anger and bitterness over how the 2000 election ended, Democrats were tentative and initially open to Bush's calls for bipartisan cooperation. Today, despite Bush's clear win over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Democrats across the ideological spectrum say they are united in their desire to fight.
"Four years ago, as a new president, his inaugural address indicated he wanted to work with people and then he didn't," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. "That Iraq experience was the most painful. There's a much reduced expectation that you can work with this White House or work with this Republican leadership."
In part the new mood reflects the reality that Democrats are even more of a minority party than they were when Bush was first sworn in, their ranks smaller in both the House and Senate and their ability to influence the legislative agenda sharply diminished.
But the unity of purpose also underscores a hardening of attitudes among Democrats - from elected officials and strategists to grass-roots activists and party constituencies - that Bush's domestic agenda presents opportunities to divide the GOP, break apart Bush's winning coalition and recapture some of the voters who supported Bush last fall.
Democrats said they see opportunities on Social Security, where Bush wants to partly privatize the system by allowing younger workers to divert payroll taxes to personal accounts; judicial appointments, where both sides are gearing up for a clash over a possible Supreme Court vacancy; and revising the tax code. Bush may find his best chance to win Democratic votes for his call to limit medical malpractice lawsuits.
Bush has opened the year with calls for bipartisanship, telling newly elected members of Congress last week that he hoped to work across party lines to solve the country's problems.
Democrats, however, appear to have little interest in building bridges to the White House, saying they do not believe Bush is genuinely interested in cooperation or compromise with the opposition.
"The president's idea of bipartisanship is, here's what I want to do, join me," said Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "It isn't about negotiating. It isn't about compromise. It's almost this belief that they have the monopoly on what's best for the country."
Democrats point to Bush's decision to renominate a group of conservative judicial candidates who had been blocked by Democratic opposition during his first term as evidence that he will aggressively push an ideological agenda in his second term.
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa, one of the most combative Democrats in Congress, accused Bush of "throwing down the gauntlet" since winning re-election.
"Usually when you win you try to be magnanimous," he said. "But everything we've heard from the president is, `I've got a mandate,' `I've got all this political capital,' and `We'll work with you as long as you agree with us.' Well, wait a minute, you mean we have to agree to everything before they'll work with us. That's a non-starter."
White House officials see Democrats as the obstructionists, but Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., said the president's advisers are trying to have it both ways. "You cannot have bipartisanship based on a political strategy of polarization," he said.
Kerry's defeat left Democrats demoralized, particularly because so many believed the Massachusetts senator was going to win, and it has triggered a period of introspection and debate over how the party needs to change to win elections in 2006 and compete for the White House again in 2008.
That internal debate has not caused Democrats to shrink from a fight with Bush - if anything the willingness of Democrats to challenge him has increased in the past month - nor do they see a serious political cost in doing so. Harkin said Senate Democrats, who met privately last Wednesday, were resolved "not to let the Republicans intimidate us or roll over us."
Several events have contributed to the Democrats' belief that Bush can be challenged at little political damage to themselves. They include the embarrassment over the withdrawal of Bush's nomination of Bernard Kerik as secretary of Homeland Security, the speculation, fed by anonymous administration leaks, about whether Treasury Secretary John W. Snow would stay or go, and the uproar over Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's remarks in Iraq about whether the military was equipped properly to go to war.
Just as significant have been polls showing Bush gained little ground in public opinion with his victory. "What's been clear and somewhat surprising in the weeks after the election is that Bush got virtually no bounce and no honeymoon from his victory," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. "What seems pretty clear is that there was nothing particularly healing about Bush's victory."
That has emboldened Democrats to resist, and they see attractive targets on the horizon. "If you look at the major priorities that Bush has outlined for a second term, they all create significant opportunities for Democrats," said Mark Mellman, who was Kerry's campaign pollster.
Bush's Social Security proposal, which would allow younger workers to invest some of their contributions into personal savings accounts, has further served to unite Democrats across the ideological spectrum, from the liberal Campaign for America's Future to two centrist groups, the Democratic Leadership Council and the newly formed Third Way.
"I don't think Democrats are frightened of him," said DLC President Bruce Reed. "They're frightened of what he wants to do but not frightened of what he can do to them, the way many were on tax cuts."
"It looks like Democrats are going to stay firm and stay united," said Roger Hickey, one of the leaders of the Campaign for America's Future. "Bush is asking Republicans to bite a harder bullet than he did four years ago."
Grass-roots Democrats feed the appetite to battle Bush, giving Democratic leaders in Washington more incentive to challenge the president. "I've been struck how funders and groups like MoveOn are very engaged and are not letting up at all," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
Four years ago, he said, Democrats pulled back, but this time there is pressure from the grass roots to continue the fight. "Democrats took a licking [in November], but see themselves back in the battle," Greenberg said. "I don't think outside forces will allow Democrats [in Washington] to disengage."
There is grumbling among strategists that the party is falling behind the White House and congressional Republicans in developing a strategy.
In the end, they acknowledge, Democrats might have more desire than capacity to defeat Bush's agenda, but as Bush's second term begins, the battle lines in Washington are being clearly drawn.
Copyright © 2005 by The Hartford Courant