Democrats sing in the 'abuse of power' chorus

Quick: What do you call President Bush’s decision to recess-appoint John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations? “Abuse of power,” says Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason Reid2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care Reid says he wishes Franken would run for Senate again Panel: How Biden's gaffes could cost him against Trump MORE (D-Nev.). “Abuse of power,” says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Quick: What do you call President Bush’s decision to recess-appoint John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations?

“Abuse of power,” says Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“Abuse of power,” says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

ADVERTISEMENT
“Abuse of power,” says Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.
The Democrats’ one-note response to the Bolton appointment brings to mind an article that appeared recently in The New York Times Magazine. Reporter Matt Bai looked into the party’s efforts to “frame” the political debate in Washington — that is, to come up with a new vocabulary to make Democratic positions seem more attractive to voters.

As Bai tells it, party leaders were looking for ways to make the case for their unprecedented use of the filibuster to stop Bush judicial nominees. They asked pollster Geoff Garin to look into it.

Garin conducted polls to test the argument that Democrats were simply trying to keep extremist judges off the bench. But that idea — a staple of Democratic campaigns for years — didn’t test too well. Voters far preferred the argument that, in using the filibuster, Democrats were trying to preserve the basic checks-and-balances fairness of the system. (It wasn’t actually true, but it sounded good.)

But what words would best make that argument? Garin assembled focus groups to look for just the right phrase.

“He heard voters call the majority party ‘arrogant,’” Bai writes of Garin’s research. “They said they feared ‘abuse of power.’

“This phrase struck Garin. ... [He] shared his polling with a group of Democratic senators that included Harry Reid.”

ADVERTISEMENT
On the basis of Garin’s research, Bai continues, Reid set up a Democratic “war room” on judges. He assigned John KerryJohn Forbes KerryTrump's winning weapon: Time The Memo: O'Rourke looks to hit reset button #FreeAustinTice trending on anniversary of kidnapping in Syria MORE’s old campaign spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter, to put together talking points based on Garin’s research.

“Cutter’s war room began churning out mountains of news releases hammering daily at the GOP’s ‘abuse of power,’” Bai writes. “In an unusual show of discipline, Democrats in the Senate and House carried laminated, pocket-size message cards — “DEMOCRATS FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY, AGAINST ABUSE OF POWER. ...”

Soon, Reid was talking about Republican “abuse of power.” Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerAppropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down Trump ahead of New Hampshire speech: Lewandowski would be 'fantastic' senator MORE (D-N.Y.) was talking about “abuse of power.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was talking about “abuse of power.” Everybody was talking about “abuse of power.”

Democrats even held a “STOP ABUSE OF POWER” rally.

So what did they do when George W. Bush, facing a Democratic filibuster of his nominee for U.N. ambassador, circumvented the Senate and appointed Bolton?

Why, they cried, “abuse of power.”

“The abuse of power and the cloak of secrecy from the White House continues,” Kennedy said Monday. “It’s a devious maneuver that evades the constitutional requirement of Senate consent. ...”

The funny thing is, for all the talk today, defying the opposition wasn’t an abuse of power — much less a devious maneuver — back in 1997, when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe magic of majority rule in elections The return of Ken Starr Assault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress MORE used his presidential authority to evade the constitutional requirement of Senate consent and install Bill Lann Lee in a top Justice Department job. Back then, Kennedy didn’t protest. He didn’t make angry speeches. He didn’t even peep. In fact, he praised Clinton for going around the Senate.

And when Lee was sworn in, Kennedy posed for pictures with Clinton, Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold Gore2020 Democrats release joint statement ahead of Trump's New Hampshire rally Deregulated energy markets made Texas a clean energy giant Gun safety is actually a consensus issue MORE and Attorney General Janet Reno. Yes, the remarkably unangry senator from Massachusetts showed up at the White House to celebrate a devious maneuver that evaded the constitutional requirement of Senate consent.

(There was, by the way, one small difference in the Lee and Bolton cases: Clinton ignored the wishes of the majority party in the Senate, while Bush ignored the wishes of the minority.)

Whatever. To hear Kennedy tell it, Clinton had saved the country from the forces of evil. “I think it’s unfortunate that we have an outstanding Asian-American recommended for this position and that the majority Republican Party — which is basically anti-civil rights, anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-worker — is utilizing the procedures of the United States Senate to block an outstanding individual from serving all Americans,” Kennedy said on “Meet the Press” on Dec. 14, 1997.

“We ought to be able to take this [nomination] to the floor of the United States Senate and let the Senate decide.”

But that was then. Now, eight years later, Kennedy is not so receptive to the “let the Senate decide” argument. As a matter of fact, he’s downright hostile to it.

Of course, it’s all moot as far as Bolton is concerned. Which means it’s time for Democrats to move on to the next opportunity to shout “abuse of power.”

The fight over Supreme Court nominee John Roberts is rapidly approaching, and at the first moment the White House does not give opposition senators every shred of paper they want, a cry will arise from Reid, Kennedy, Schumer, and all their allies.

And what will they say?

You guessed it.

York is a White House correspondent for National Review. His column appears in The Hill each week. E-mail: byork@thehill.com