Setting Democrats up for failure

A new media myth is born: Focusing on investigation over legislation will bring political "peril."

Published March 26, 2007 1:00PM (EDT)

There's a new danger afoot for the Democrats, according to pundits, and I'm already tired of hearing about it: Too many investigations into White House wrongdoing will alienate voters!

I've heard this threat mentioned in television news broadcasts and chat shows, but Adam Nagourney summed it all up in the New York Times on Sunday in "Perks and Perils of a Heavy Gavel." Nagourney saw a lot of peril for Democrats: "The biggest risk is going so far that they feel the sting of a backlash -- of being transformed from the fresh new face of change to the latest cast of Washington players enmeshed in partisan wrangling."

Nagourney even found Democrats to voice this worry. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says his party took back Congress in November because "voters were looking for more civility and more cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. There have been moments when this has happened," Daschle warns, "but we still have a long way to go on this." The Democrats will sink themselves with too many subpoenas and inquiries, Nagourney argues, "unless they can also compile a record of legislation by the time the next election comes around."

What a great way to set the party up for failure. I'm sure most Democrats, and even some Republicans, would like the new governing majority to pass meaningful legislation. I know I would. But let's be honest: Democrats have only narrow majorities in the House and, especially, in the Senate. That means getting serious legislation passed will be a big challenge; getting it signed by the president (or passed by veto-proof majorities) will be near-impossible on any controversial issue. Their investigative authority is one of the only reliable powers the majority gives Democrats right now.

And there's plenty to investigate: obstruction of justice and perjury in the U.S. attorneys firing; the abandonment of wounded vets at Walter Reed and elsewhere (and the deployment of wounded vets back to Iraq or to training camps, as Mark Benjamin most recently revealed); NSA spying; secret prisons; torture; the outing of an undercover CIA agent; Hurricane Katrina; bad or falsified intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to war in Iraq; war profiteering; I'm surely forgetting something important.

Nagourney points to the way the GOP abused its power with endless investigations of President Clinton, culminating in impeachment, and notes that the party lost congressional seats in the 1998 midterm election as evidence of the political perils of "over-investigating" the president. But comparing what Democrats are doing today with the faux-outrages the GOP investigated in the 1990s is silly. Sure, theoretically, I can imagine Democrats going too far. Let me go on record saying I hope no one stoops to the level of, say, shooting a pumpkin (or was it a watermelon?), the way Rep. Dan Burton did when faux-investigating the tragic suicide of Vince Foster.

But Democrats are a long, long way from the frivolous partisan follies of Fostergate, Travelgate, Troopergate, Chinagate, Whitewater or anything having to do with Monica Lewinsky. I trust voters to see the difference, even if political reporters can't.

By Joan Walsh

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