Exploiting GOP arrogance

Every time I sit down at the computer the past few weeks the Republican leadership seems to have veered further off message and the Democrats seem increasingly to be finding their voice. Tuesday’s delay of a vote on John Bolton’s nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations is the latest example. It is also yet another early signal that Democrats may actually have a good shot at reversing their precipitous slide from power in the 2006 elections.

Every time I sit down at the computer the past few weeks the Republican leadership seems to have veered further off message and the Democrats seem increasingly to be finding their voice.

Tuesday’s delay of a vote on John Bolton’s nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations is the latest example. It is also yet another early signal that Democrats may actually have a good shot at reversing their precipitous slide from power in the 2006 elections.

As noted here a few weeks ago, political parties tend to overreach when they become entrenched powers. There is a strong argument that the fierce determination to install Bolton at the United Nations was yet another example of the arrogance of power. The intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) continued crusade against an independent judiciary (not to mention the scandal that won’t go away) and the threatened end to the filibuster of judicial nominees seem to have given the Democrats some backbone and, more important, some confidence that voters may agree with them.

The smart money was on a short but contentious meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after which Bolton’s name would be sent to the full Senate on a party-line vote. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), an intelligent and seasoned political hand, certainly thought there would be nothing more than a little grandstanding before the vote.

“I wasn’t born yesterday,” the senator said in predicting what he would hear and the likely outcome. He seemed to have the “wavering” Republican senators, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, safely in the GOP corral.

I wasn’t in that room, so I have only second-hand reports of what Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) actually said. But I’ve seen both men in action and understand the power of their passion when they believe they are right and, more important, when they think they have a message that will move people.

The man they moved first was somewhat unexpected. Former Gov. and now Sen. George Voinovich (R) demonstrated his independent streak and, I suspect, his connection with home-state voters when he announced he’d heard enough to have “real concerns.” Once the Ohio senator broke through the fence, there was no reason for Chafee and Hagel to stay in the pen. What had been a done deal got a sudden jolt of reality.

The themes voiced by Biden and Dodd seem to be resonating with Americans. Even conservative “value voters” who might agree with Bolton’s harsh attacks on North Korea are uncomfortable with his tendency to shoot the messenger if the intelligence report delivered doesn’t fit his worldview.

The vision of Bolton as an outraged lobbyist chasing a woman through a Moscow hotel, throwing objects at her and spreading patent falsehoods about her honesty does not quite fit the image of international diplomacy most folks think of — no matter their view of the United Nations. Had this charge been unsubstantiated, it might have been dismissed. But when confirmed by others, it does seem, in the victim’s word, “pathological.”

So do the midterm hopes of Democrats hang on the somewhat shaky prospects of John Bolton? Of course not. But if Democrats can build a case that the majority party shows a pattern of arrogance and abuse of power, they may well make inroads in the midterm elections.

As noted here before, values voters don’t want DeLay deciding personal family matters for them. Americans have been indoctrinated with the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and deeply believe the judiciary should be independent. And swing voters won’t forgive an administration official for being rude, arrogant and obnoxious just because he is a neoconservative icon.

In the 2004 presidential election, there were hints that some voters found President Bush just a little too full of himself. Some were put off by the smirks and shoot-from-the-lip answers. Compared to the stiff and sometimes arrogant appearance of the Democratic nominee, however, Bush was preferable to voters.

The Republican leadership in the Senate and House don’t have the easygoing style of the president. Where he seemed self-assured, they are beginning to seem arrogant.

There is nothing the American voter likes more than taking the self-important down a notch or two. If Democrats can project a little righteous indignation at GOP arrogance without seeming self-righteous themselves, that couple of notches could turn into a basketful of seats come next November.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com