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At a Polarizing Time, Democrats Betting on Unity

Times Staff Writer

So much for the truce.

Just weeks after a deal on judicial nominations stirred hopes of a reduction in partisan hostilities, the Senate’s vote Monday to block the nomination of John R. Bolton as U.N. ambassador highlighted the pressures propelling Washington’s continued escalation of conflict.

The appointment of Bolton -- a blustery, ardent conservative -- symbolized the Bush administration’s determination to advance an ambitious and ideologically polarizing agenda that excites Republicans but provokes intense resistance from most Democrats.

Conversely, the GOP failure to break the filibuster against Bolton highlighted the surprising willingness of Democrats -- even those from states where President Bush has run best -- to stand with more liberal colleagues against major parts of the president’s agenda.

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That Democratic unity, on issues from Bolton to the federal budget to the restructuring of Social Security, marks a stark departure from Bush’s success in his first term at fracturing the party on key votes, like his initial tax cut plan. It also represents the Democrats’ key strategic bet for the 2006 congressional elections -- a gamble that Republicans, as the party in power, will be hurt most if Bush’s agenda is derailed and Washington devolves into partisan stalemate.

Many Republicans believe Democrats are opening themselves up to charges that they are obstructing the president’s agenda. That charge proved potent, especially in states Bush carried, during the 2002 and 2004 congressional elections.

“The Democrats are treading on thin ice because they lack their own agenda and you can’t just be the party of ‘No’ on everything,” said GOP strategist Scott Reed.

But the Democratic resistance is drawing praise from several party strategists enthused by polls that show Bush and Congress suffering some of the lowest approval ratings of his tenure.

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“I think the party will be much better positioned for the 2006 election than 2002,” said Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential bid.

Democrats soon could face critical choices on how far to press their hard-line approach as public discontent with the Iraq war grows and the possibility looms that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist will retire.

On both fronts, the party base is clamoring for aggressive resistance. But Democrats in Washington remain uncertain over how sharply to dissent from Bush’s approach on Iraq and whether to filibuster a potential Supreme Court appointment that would replace one conservative with another and not change the court’s balance of power.

“There are a lot of Democrats from Bush states who will be willing to support a conservative nominee if he is not someone that is so far to the right that he is outside the mainstream,” said John B. Breaux, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana who was a leader among party moderates until his retirement last year.

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In Washington, the current never flows only in one direction. Even amid the sharp conflict over Bolton, the Senate is moving this week to pass energy legislation that could attract significant bipartisan support.

The White House also had success this year in attracting large numbers of Democratic votes for legislation making it more difficult to declare bankruptcy or file class-action lawsuits -- two measures strongly opposed by most Democratic interest groups.

Still, operatives in both parties agree that one of Washington’s defining trends this year has been the Democratic unity in frequently opposing Bush initiatives. That has surprised the White House and other Republican strategists who believed that Bush’s large margins of victory in GOP-leaning “red” states last year would increase his leverage over the 14 Democratic senators from those states.

Instead, every Senate Democrat except Nebraska’s Ben Nelson has unequivocally opposed Bush’s signature proposal to fund individual investment accounts from Social Security payroll taxes. Every Senate Democrat voted against Bush’s 2006 budget this year. And all but three Senate Democrats supported the filibuster against Bolton this week.

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Several factors have contributed to this solidarity. To many, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has proved to be a surprisingly tough leader who has stressed party unity as the key to preserving any Democratic influence in a Capitol where the GOP controls all levers of power. Brazile said Reid sometimes enlisted Democratic operatives with close relationships to particular senators to discourage defections. “He calls outsiders to put pressure on this guy or gal not to cross him or cross the party,” she said.

Polls showing sagging support for the Social Security plan among independents have significantly reduced Bush’s leverage over “red” state Democrats, most analysts agree.

And polls showing sagging overall support for Bush and for Congress have encouraged Democrats to maintain their course. In recent weeks, Bush’s job approval rating has consistently run below 50%. Approval ratings for Congress have plummeted below 35% -- not much higher than the levels before the 1994 landslide that swept Democrats from control of both chambers.

Almost universally, GOP strategists believe the Democratic strategy will hurt it if the party is defined primarily by opposing Bush rather than by advancing its own ideas. GOP analysts note that several recent polls have found the public not much warmer, and in some instances cooler, toward congressional Democrats than Republicans.

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“The Democrats are united, but they are united in obstructionism and opposition,” said one GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking. “They are in the process of painting a self-portrait that will ultimately hurt them.”

There have been few signs that the Democratic resistance has caused Bush to change his legislative or political strategy; on Tuesday, for instance, the White House struck a characteristically defiant note by demanding another vote on Bolton.

Still, sources say the White House is concerned enough about the polarized pattern that it is looking to highlight issues with greater appeal to Democrats, such as access to healthcare.

Most congressional Democrats say the party has time before 2006 to more clearly articulate a competing agenda. But some in the party worry that waiting until the election season may be dangerous for Democrats if Republicans can stamp the obstructionist label on them now.

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“We forget how many years before 1994 Republicans built up a narrative about who they are and what they believed. I don’t think we can wait to let people know what our values are and ideas,” veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg said. “Democrats in every battle should be laying out an alternative view of the world.”


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