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Can Democrats live down their performance?

Elections, in one important sense, resemble drivers education.

Politicians, like driving instructors, nearly always admonish their wards to focus on the road ahead rather than gawk at the pileup in the rearview mirror.

Oh, how Republicans wished they had a crusty gym coach in the passenger seat of the nation's voting booths in 2006, scolding citizens not to rubberneck at the wreckage of unbridled spending, an unpopular war and GWI -- governing while impaired. Ethically, that is.

Voters did look back, of course, and gave the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress the electoral whiplash they had earned.

Despite their minority status, there's still a trace of that "don't look back" tutelage going on in 2008. Follow the GOP candidates on the road to the White House and Congress, and there's one name you never will hear: "George who?"

Yet even as Republicans labor to put three semi-trailer lengths between themselves and the occupant of the Oval Office, it's Democrats who have the most to fear from a voting populace that glances away from the audacity of hope ahead and stares instead at the heap of failure that lies behind.

A year ago, triumphant Democrats arrived on Capitol Hill declaring, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, "The election of 2006 was a call to change -- not merely to change the control of Congress, but for a new direction for our country."

So how did they do? The first entry in "A New Direction for America," the Democrats' legislative playbook for 2007, was national security. And the top national security issue was changing course in Iraq.

There was indeed a change of course during 2007, but not the one Democrats had hoped for. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid presided over more than 60 votes that attempted to impose deadlines or other limitations on the armed forces. Each failed.

When Reid declared in April that "the war is lost," he may have accurately described his party's legislative agenda, but he certainly wasn't characterizing the efforts of U.S. armed forces in Iraq, with new leadership and a new strategy.

Now you can hear the caterwauling of Democrats who blame an obstructionist Republican minority and an obstinate president for this and other legislative failures. And you'd be tempted to sympathize with them, until you actually look at the votes.

Last spring's $120 billion war funding bill, for instance, sailed through the Senate by a vote of 80-14 and the House by a vote of 280-142. There are only 48 Republicans in the Senate, 200 in the House. Do the math.

Closing Gitmo, raising America's moral standing in the world, defending civil liberties? Not only did the new majority fail to deliver on these promises, we also learned during 2007 that Democratic leaders in Congress, including Pelosi, had for years known and kept quiet about controversial interrogation practices and surveillance programs.

The commitment to begin "a new era of honest, open and transparent government"? New ethics legislation certainly represents significant progress -- immeasurably more so than anything that came out of the GOP-led Congress in recent years. But it contains vast loopholes, especially on earmark disclosure, which members of both parties used to great effect in the last session.

Getting Congress to do the work of the people? When the new fiscal year began Oct. 1, the Democrat-led Congress had failed to pass 11 of the 12 appropriations bills that fund federal government operations, a demonstration of fiscal irresponsibility as reckless as any that preceded it.

To avoid a government shutdown, last month Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that combined the remaining 11 appropriations into a $555 billion pork-barrel monstrosity laden with nearly 9,000 earmarks.

Restoring civility to the democratic process? Not only did the new majority routinely exercise the same tactics of exclusion it decried when Republicans employed them, in the House it also tried to abolish the motion to recommit -- a parliamentary procedure on the books since 1822 that protects the minority rights of both parties.

"Nancy and Harry who?" you may be hearing from the campaign trail. And keep your eyes on the road ahead.

Gurwitz writes for the San Antonio Express-News; write to him at jgurwitz@express-news.net.

McCLATCHY-TRIBUNE

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