It was the night of Barbara Boxer’s greatest political victory. She had been re-elected to a third term as a senator from California, beating a credible challenger by a twenty-point margin and securing a higher raw vote total–6.9 million–than any federal candidate save George W. Bush and John Kerry. But Boxer’s party was in trouble. Democrats had failed to retake the White House and lost seats in Congress, and a decade after the GOP revolution of 1994 put both the House and Senate in Republican hands, the party that had for so long ruled Congress still did not seem to understand how to mount an effective opposition. “On election night,” Boxer recalls, “I said that I knew there were hard and tough times coming and that if I had to stand alone, I was going to do it. I’m not going to worry about what other people are doing. I’m going to be comfortable with being the only vote.”
To anyone unfamiliar with the continuing crisis of the contemporary Democratic Party–which, for the past decade, has been exacerbated by the supine character of its Congressional caucuses–Boxer’s statement might have sounded bizarre. Sure, things look bad for Democrats, but the party still has a substantial caucus in the Senate. So why would she be talking about standing alone? The answer is that Boxer, a liberal who shares the view of many grassroots Democrats that their party’s fortunes will be renewed only by showing strength, was implicitly acknowledging the reality that a lot of Congressional Democrats still don’t recognize: that Democrats have to become a genuine opposition party before they can ever again hope to become a majority party.
Barely two months after she made her go-it-alone pledge, the Senator would illustrate that point–perhaps unintentionally, but certainly effectively–when she lodged one of the most high-profile dissents in the history of the Senate. Inspired by electoral justice activists, who, she says, “definitely put the issue on the agenda for me,” and by conversations with Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a Cleveland Democrat who was concerned about the disenfranchisement of minority voters in Ohio, Boxer objected to the certification of the presidential election results from that state. Boxer’s objection forced a two-hour debate that saw several Senate Democrats making pious statements about the need to count every vote, but she alone voted against certification.
Boxer’s move thrilled Democrats outside Washington–thirty bouquets arrived at her office afterward–but it did not meet with enthusiasm from her Democratic colleagues. Senate minority leader Harry Reid reportedly worried that Boxer’s move would paint Democrats as sore losers. Senator Mark Dayton, usually a reliable liberal, dismissed the challenge as “seriously misguided.” Press coverage focused more on the tear Boxer shed as she talked about disenfranchised minority voters than on the compelling evidence of the denial of democracy. White House spokesman Scott McClellan announced, “It is time to move forward and not engage in conspiracy theories or partisan politics of this nature.” But Boxer didn’t back off.
Less than two weeks later, she turned a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Condoleezza Rice’s nomination as Secretary of State into an unprecedented debate about the Administration’s manipulation of intelligence data regarding Iraq. Recalling Rice’s suggestion that Saddam Hussein might launch a nuclear weapon against America, resulting in a “mushroom cloud,” Boxer told Rice, “That image had to frighten every American into believing that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of annihilating them if he was not stopped. And I will be placing into the record a number of such statements you made which have not been consistent with the facts.” So tough–and on the mark–was Boxer’s attack that it inspired Saturday Night Live regular Amy Poehler to portray the chart-toting legislator confronting Rice with a bar graph contrasting a stubby line representing “the truth” with a long bold line for “what you say.” (Boxer loved it.)