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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Democrats' special interest problem

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Senate
Harry Reid
John Roberts

WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- For several elections, Democrats have been hurt by the widespread perception that the party consists of a confederation of interest groups to which Democratic leadership is slavishly beholden.

You know the knock: Democrats are forever meeting with special interests like the Irish-Jewish Home for the Short or Transvestite Taxidermists Against the Metric System and then caving to the groups' non-negotiable demands.

In the run-up to the Senate Judiciary Committee's vote on the John Roberts nomination to be chief justice, that harmful stereotype of Democrats was reinforced.

After the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, announced that he would oppose the Roberts nomination, it was revealed that Reid had met, last week in the Capitol with representatives of some 40 groups, who argued that a Chief Justice Roberts would be no friend to the rights of African-Americans and women, which Democrats had historically championed.

In explaining his opposition to Judge Roberts, Reid told the Senate he had been "very swayed" by the public testimony of, and his private meeting with, those civil rights and women's groups.

Enter Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, one of the groups with enormous influence in Democratic Party councils and whose organization had called President Bush's nomination of John Roberts, in measured language, "an outrage and an insult to the women of this country."

Did Gandy tell the press that Harry Reid, a pro-life Democrat from the Red State of Nevada, deserved praise for making an unpopular political decision? Of course not. NOW's president attributed Reid's move not to internal character, but to outside muscle, telling The New York Times, "He got the message loud and clear, didn't he?"

With friends like Kim Gandy, Harry Reid and the Democrats don't need any enemies.

This was no right-wing talk show host commentator or Republican Party operative accusing the Senate Democratic leader, on the solemn choice of a chief justice of the Supreme Court, of cravenly caving to organized pressure groups. It was an ostensible ally telling the world that when Democratic pressure groups yell, 'Jump!' the only question Democratic politicians ask is, 'How high?'

If Democratic Party leaders have any functioning brain cells and the remnants of a vertebrae, they will let it be known to Gandy and the entire political world that she will attend no more private meetings, but that like every other constituent she is free to communicate her views by phone, letter or e-mail.

The Democrats' problems go far beyond this latest little humiliation. Forget that the nation and the party would both have been better served by the temperamentally suited and professionally qualified John Roberts' winning Senate confirmation with 90-plus votes.

The nation would have been better served because such a margin would have represented an un-petty act in a city descended into hateful pettiness.

And the Democrats, because by acknowledging Roberts' obvious assets -- intellectual firepower, genuine respect from, and friendship with, colleagues who are active Democrats, a reputation for open-mindedness and not being a captive of ideology -- they could have then believably used the "Roberts standard" to measure President Bush's future court nominees.

Because of the tragedy and official incompetence in both Iraq and Katrina, and because of the growing perception -- fueled by criminal indictments and allegations against GOP influence-peddler Jack Abramoff and a presidential appointee at the Office of Management and Budget, along with indictments in Texas of close associates of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- that nearly everything in George Bush's Washington is for sale, Republicans could be facing political implosion.

But if Democrats are ever to win public confidence, they must prove themselves capable of standing up to their own support groups. As the minority, they must become (as Newt Gingrich's House GOP became while out of power) the reform party.

Do congressional Democrats have the guts or the imagination to stand publicly for banning members of Congress and congressional staffers from lobbying for five years after they leave Congress, for the prohibition of all fund raising while Congress is in session, for banning all elected public officials from secretly working with corporate lobbyists in writing legislation?

Those are just for starters. The real question for Washington Democrats is whether they agree with the Italian proverb (with no apologies to PETA): "It is better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep."


Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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