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Party matters

October 02, 2006

NOT LONG AGO, even the most optimistic Democrats thought the party would be lucky to regain control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. Now, buoyed by bad news for President Bush and once-favored GOP incumbents such as the gaffe-prone Sen. George Allen of Virginia, Democrats are daring to dream that they will gain control of both houses of Congress on election day.

Such a change on Capitol Hill would be momentous, of course, which may explain why Bush went into oratorical overdrive last week by caricaturing Democrats as "the party of cut-and-run" in Iraq. But aside from being bad news for some partisans and good news for others, how would a congressional shift affect national and international policy?

On balance, it would be constructive. A Democratic Congress would be more of a check on the presidency, less patient with the U.S. involvement in Iraq, more protective of civil liberties in the war on terror, more willing to allow regressive tax cuts to expire and, in the case of a Democratic Senate, unlikely to approve stridently conservative judicial nominees. It also would be more sympathetic to one of Bush's priorities, comprehensive immigration reform.

The paradox is that, to win control of Congress, Democrats will have to rely on Democrats who sound suspiciously like Republicans.

Which raises the question: What does a politician have to do to get kicked out of his party nowadays? One might ask Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is running for reelection as an independent after losing in the Democratic primary for his support of the Iraq war. On the other side of the aisle, one could ask Steve Laffey, a Rove Republican who lost in the primary in part because the Bush administration supported his opponent, Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Rockefeller Republican who disagreed with the White House on a variety of issues but stands a better chance in the general election.

This leads to yet another paradox: As the stakes get higher, party affiliation matters more but means less.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairmen of the Democratic congressional campaign committees, have been willing, even eager, to support candidates who don't toe the party line. Schumer, for example, recruited Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey, an opponent of abortion, to oppose incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. Yet a victory for Casey, who is ahead in the polls, is vital to hopes of Democratic control. Even on issues on which there is a clear partisan divide, such as the war in Iraq, some Democrats have been allowed to tack to the center.

That's what they call "big tent" politics. But a tent is valuable for what it keeps out as much as for what it lets in. Last week, when the Senate took up Bush's proposal for military commissions to try suspected terrorists, all but one of the 44 Democrats voted to give suspected terrorists the right to file habeas corpus petitions challenging their confinement. But after that amendment was defeated, 12 Democrats, including five whose names are on the ballot next month, voted for a bill that guts the Great Writ. That's not the kind of position Democrats -- or Republicans, for that matter -- should be standing for.

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