Liberal warrior

Sheldon Whitehouse is attacking the obstructionist GOP head-on. Will it work?
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 10, 2013

 Sheldon_top.jpg
GAME PLAN Whitehouse looks to marshal the facts, hammer the Republicans, and embarrass them into action. [Photo by Associated Press]

The Republican Party's disastrous showing in the 2012 election has spawned all manner of blueprints for a GOP reinvention.

But the party seems more interested in amendment than overhaul. It's budging on immigration reform and moving a bit on gay marriage. Elsewhere, though, it appears as immovable as ever.

That intransigence — or, if you like, resolve — raises a vital question on the other side of the aisle: faced with a GOP still hostile to the president — and to standard political negotiation — what is a liberal legislator to do?

Is there any use, at this point, in trying to work with the Republican Party on the big issues?

It is a particularly fraught question in the Senate, which still clings to a dying tradition of comity. But a handful of junior Democrats have surrendered any dream of the old order and acceded to the hyper partisanship of the Age of Obama.

Among the most articulate and forceful of this new breed: Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

When it comes to his signature issues — climate change, campaign finance reform, tax fairness — he makes little secret of his approach: marshal the facts, hammer the Republicans, and embarrass them into action.

It is, for Whitehouse's liberal supporters, an effort of undeniable appeal: here is a Democrat going on the offensive, taking it to a GOP that so often seems the aggressor.

But is it the best course? The only course? And most important: can it work?


EVOLUTION

Whitehouse did not present as an ideologue in his early career as a US Attorney and Attorney General. His job was law enforcement, then, not political duel.

But when he ran for the Senate in 2006, partisanship was running hot in this country. Blue states like Rhode Island had come to detest the Bush Administration. And Whitehouse was able to turn that enmity against his popular, moderate opponent: Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee.

A vote for Chafee, he argued, was a vote for GOP control of the Senate.

In his early days in Washington, Whitehouse was involved in his share of partisan skirmishes. As a former prosecutor, Whitehouse proved a particularly useful critic of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who was embroiled in controversies on warrantless wiretapping and what looked like the politically motivated dismissal of several US Attorneys.

But it was the election of President Obama, and the GOP's response to that election, that launched the senator on his current trajectory.

"We began to see this absolutely relentless Republican obstruction that, it became more and more clear, was actually a strategy," Whitehouse says, a strategy that "was going to be applied to everything the president tried to do, no matter how much he tried to compromise."

The Republican Party's single-minded pursuit, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would later acknowledge, was to make Obama a one-term president. Whitehouse says he and some of his Senate colleagues recognized this reality before the Oval Office did.

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