Republican control of the White House, both houses of Congress, and state houses gives the GOP its strongest national position since the Eisenhower period of the 1950s. As Democrats ponder their role in opposition, they might consider how their predecessors conducted themselves during that time.
Democratic congressional leaders Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson pursued a strategy in opposition which, down the road, paid long-term dividends for their party. They supported the Eisenhower administration on national security issues during a dangerous time — intervening with the White House when necessary to stop mistakes such as Vice President Richard Nixon’s proposal to use nuclear weapons to bail out French forces at Dienbienphu. They observed the general rule that a president deserved to have the nominees he wanted for key administration and judicial appointments and questioned them only selectively.
Congressional Democrats of that period did, however, use their investigative authority to highlight episodes of public/private corruption. Most importantly, they began preparing the ground for landmark domestic legislation — which ultimately became the Great Society — even though they lacked majorities at the time to pass it. In 1965, after President Johnson’s huge victory over Barry Goldwater, Democrats promptly passed the agenda they had nurtured during the Eisenhower years.
The party’s visible leaders and voices are pursuing an entirely different strategy today. It generally amounts to angry opposition on all issues all the time. President Bush’s Iraq intervention was problematic. But had Mr. Kerry been elected president, he would be following essentially the same path today in Iraq as Bush — that is, to build an elected Iraqi government’s capacity to maintain sufficient security that American forces could leave. Yet most Democrats’ reaction to the first essential step in that strategy, the successful completion of elections, has been to dismiss the elections’ importance, to charge Mr. Bush with “having no exit strategy,” or to demand he set a hard timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.
For many years Democrats, more than Republicans, pointed to the need to reform Social Security for the long term. Social Security, after all, was a Democratic invention and a cornerstone of the party’s commitment to economic security. Yet, in the face of the Bush reform initiative, many senior Democrats have chosen simply to deny the need for change. That is not a viable policy or political position. Democrats are quite right to challenge the notion of partial privatization of the system. But they have an equal obligation to offer an alternative reform plan, the components of which are self-evident and which would require little public sacrifice. Why not seize the opportunity the Bush initiative presents and move public opinion toward a Democratic alternative on Social Security?
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