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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOHN E. SUNUNU

D for Democrat. Or dodge.

gwenda Kaczor for the boston globe

According to Patches O’Houlihan, the legendary coach featured in the film “Dodgeball,” winning required mastery of the game’s five d’s: “dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge.” Today, that silly catchphrase for an even sillier movie has become the operating manual for congressional Democrats campaigning for re-election. As they weave through the minefield of President Obama’s policy blunders, they’ve avoided discussing the substance of a host of important issues. One can’t help but be impressed by their dexterity in deploying a few d’s of their own.

Deny. On Benghazi, Democrats’ central tactic has been simply to deny there exists a problem worth evaluating. The attack upon the US Consulate in Libya left four Americans dead; desperate calls for assistance drew no military response; and White House talking points were famously edited to remove any reference to Al Qaeda. But even after it was revealed that the White House withheld e-mails from Congress, most Democrats still insist there is nothing to debate. By condemning any proposed hearing as “partisan,” they hope to keep voter interest to a minimum.

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Denounce. Ignoring the growing scandal within the Veterans Affairs health system has proven far more difficult. At first, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, Chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, simply denounced the falsified records and excessive wait times in Phoenix as aberrations within an otherwise well functioning system. His assurances that the VA “provides very high quality health care — period” and that now-deposed VA Secretary Eric Shinseki “has done a very good jobhave been likened to statements by Baghdad Bob, the Iraqi government spokesman who insisted that a great victory was at hand even as American tanks rolled through his city.

For those in tough campaign fights, papering over systemic failures of the VA bureaucracy was never an option. Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor called the revelations “inexcusable,” but refused to call for Shinseki’s resignation. As a member of the committee responsible for overseeing the VA system, Pryor’s exposure on the issue is particularly high. His colleagues were much quicker to throw the secretary overboard. Democratic senators in Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, and North Carolina all called for Shinseki to go. He has, but the scandal continues to widen: last week, investigators found similar fraud at VA hospitals in Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, and Indiana.

Deflect. The Keystone pipeline presents a different problem altogether. Many Democrats running for re-election have repeatedly assured voters that they support American energy independence and an “all-of-the-above” strategy. By repeatedly delaying a decision on the pipeline, however, Obama puts them all in a tough position.

Some, like Senator Mark Begich of Alaska and Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, have already fled to the other side, endorsing the pipeline over a year ago. But in New Hampshire and Colorado, Jeanne Shaheen and Mark Udall have refused to take a firm position on the pipeline at all. Their fallback has been to punt to the administration and defend the agonizingly slow decision process instead. As a general rule in politics, if you’re taking about “the process,” you’re losing.

Distance. With the exchange of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban operatives, even some of the president’s most ardent supporters are taking cover. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, rarely at a loss for words, pled ignorance: “All I have heard is what I have read in the press.” California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, flatly confirmed that she believed that Obama’s failure to notify Congress violated the law. With their leaders backing away, don’t expect vulnerable senators to offer any opinion on the deal anytime soon.

Every member of Congress is pleased that the former captive is safe. Big questions remain, however, as to how and why he abandoned his post. Most important, an exchange like this should be evaluated for the potential risk to other Americans that will result from the release of what GOP Senator Lindsey Graham termed the “Taliban dream team.” That’s a trade-off that no Democrat wants to discuss. Instead of the cheers he expected, Obama has drawn skepticism from both sides.

Campaigning for office at any level is never easy. For Democrats in 2014, the unpopularity of Obamacare and a weak economy already presented a challenge. This latest series of missteps, however, was entirely avoidable. Intentionally or not, Obama is lobbing salvos at his own troops. They, in turn, are left to dodge the friendly fire. If they had been trained by a star like Patches O’Houlihan, they’d be faring better. At the moment, it looks more like the free-for-all of a third-grade gym class.

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John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.

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