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 ReidThe Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached Doctors are dying by suicide every day and we are not talking about it Impeachment trial throws curveball into 2020 race 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.).

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“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.”

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On the basis of Garin’s research, Bai continues, Reid set up a Democratic “war room” on judges. He assigned John KerryJohn Forbes KerryKrystal Ball: New Biden ad is everything that's wrong with Democrats The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats worry about diversity on next debate stage Krystal Ball: Biden's new ad is everything that's wrong with Democrats 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 SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law | Michigan governor seeks to pause Medicaid work requirements | New front in fight over Medicaid block grants House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP 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 Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached Impeachment can't wait Turley: Democrats offering passion over proof in Trump impeachment 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 GoreImpeachment can't wait Lessons of the Kamala Harris campaign The Memo: Will impeachment hurt Democrats or Trump? 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