WASHINGTON — In style and substance, Democrats are mounting a much more aggressive and unified opposition to President Bush than they did following his election in 2000.
With the expected selection Saturday of firebrand Howard Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Sen. John F. Kerry's rapid reemergence as a Bush critic, and the sharp congressional challenges to Cabinet nominees Alberto R. Gonzales and Condoleezza Rice, Democrats are consistently choosing confrontation over conciliation in their early responses to Bush in his second term.
That approach contrasts sharply with the opening months of Bush's first term, when even some leading party liberals worked with him on education reform and several centrists supported his tax cuts.
But the Democrats' newly assertive tone may reflect more anxiety than confidence.
"What's going on is Democrats are coming to recognize and accept that we are not the majority party anymore," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist New Democrat Network and a former challenger to Dean for the party chairmanship. "Democrats recognize we have to fight harder for our values and our ideas."
Republicans believe the shift opens Democrats up to charges of obstructionism. The Republican National Committee is already branding the Democrats as "the party of 'no.' "
"I don't know of any party that has done well as the party of objection," said Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Bush's reelection campaign. "I think it's a big risk and it has a lot of political downside."
Yet some Democrats believe that by following a more partisan course, the party is merely emulating Bush's strategy of primarily pursuing policies that motivate his political base.
Over the long term, it's unclear whether a strategy of ideological polarization will serve Democrats as well as it has Republicans in a country where the number of self-identified conservatives outnumbered liberals by more than 3 to 2 in the last election, according to exit polls. But the tougher tone reflects the urgency in the Democratic ranks about the GOP gains in November and the fervent demand for militancy from the party's liberal base, whose influence appears to be rising.
Liberal groups such as MoveOn.org are far more advanced than party centrists at building a grass-roots organization through the Internet, and are moving with increasing confidence to push the party toward a more combative strategy.
"We want to be in a position to give a backbone to the Democratic Party," said Eli Pariser, the executive director of the MoveOn political action committee, which says it has 3 million members.
Depending on one's political persuasion, Democrats since November have displayed either more backbone or more spleen. But there's no question they have come out in the first months since Bush's reelection throwing more punches.
Among the signs:
The Democratic National Committee is expected to select Dean as its chairman by acclamation; the other contenders for the post have dropped out. A favorite of the party's most liberal activists, Dean centered his presidential campaign last year on the charge that Democrats in Washington had cooperated too often with Bush.
Dean previewed the pugnacious tone he was likely to set in his new job at a recent party forum in New York when he declared, "I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for."
Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, lashed Bush's record on healthcare in a speech one week after the president's second inauguration. Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee, gave his first speech criticizing Bush more than one year after Bush's 2001 inauguration.
Kerry is assuming a day-to-day opposition role unprecedented for recent presidential losers. He has even conferred with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who initially led the Labor Party when it was a minority in Parliament, on how to build an opposition party.
Congressional Democrats have seized almost every opportunity to register opposition to Bush, including protests by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to November's results from Ohio, and searing questioning by Boxer and others during Rice's confirmation hearing to become secretary of State. And although they chose not to attempt a filibuster, 35 of 41 Senate Democrats present voted against Gonzales' confirmation as attorney general.
Every Senate Democrat except Nebraska's Ben Nelson signed a letter last week expressing opposition to any Social Security restructuring that would increase the federal budget deficit. That condition would effectively rule out their support for Bush's call for diverting part of the payroll tax into private accounts that workers could invest in stocks or bonds.
This near unanimity, if it holds, will contrast with 2001, when the final version of Bush's tax cut drew support from 28 Democrats in the House and 12 in the Senate.
The experiences of Bush's first term, the issues now at center stage and changes in the political climate all help explain the Democratic shift.
Bush moved into the White House after a campaign in which he promised to govern as "a uniter, not a divider." But his first term was marked by partisan confrontations that left even centrist Democrats leery of cooperating with him.
"Democrats don't trust Bush and don't trust doing business with him," said Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
Bush also has made it easier for Democrats to unify by opening his second term with an idea so few of them support: introducing private accounts to Social Security. "Bush couldn't have handed us a better place to start as an opposition than Social Security, because there is so much consensus" against his plan, Pariser said.
Rosenberg said that psychologically, November's losses had forced more Democrats to acknowledge that they no longer constituted the country's majority party — as they had for decades after President Franklin D. Roosevelt — and must define themselves more sharply through opposition.
The GOP success at capturing Democratic Senate seats in states that Bush won also reduced the number of moderates urging a more conciliatory approach — and raised doubts among the remaining centrists about whether such a strategy offered much of an electoral defense.
Liberal groups are employing both carrots and sticks to focus broad anti-Bush sentiment among rank-and-file Democrats into concentrated pressure on party leaders.
MoveOn's PAC rewarded Boxer and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for the challenge to Ohio's presidential vote by posting an online petition to thank them and by giving the legislators the names of about 100,000 signers — a potentially valuable fundraising list.
The group is also running television ads criticizing Bush's Social Security plans in the district of the sole House Democrat supporting him — Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida.
Apart from some private grumbling about Dean's reemergence, the party's more militant style has drawn little open dissent from Democratic centrists — many of whom have grown almost as critical of Bush as party liberals. But some moderates worry that the party may be following a dangerous path.
"We cannot be just the anti-Bush party," said former Rep. Timothy J. Roemer of Indiana, whose bid for the DNC chairmanship was doomed by opposition from liberal activists, particularly over his position against legal abortion. "We will always be a minority party if we cannot say where we want to take America in the future and have a positive and optimistic vision."
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