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The Death of "Just Say No" on Capitol Hill?

12/20/2010 01:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's an old cliché on Capitol Hill: when in doubt, vote no.

The thinking goes that voters rarely reward a "yes" vote on controversial legislation and never penalize a "no" vote. Politically, opposition is almost always safer.

Since Democrats won majorities in the House and Senate in 2006, Republicans have adopted the political tactic of "just say no" as a governing philosophy. When I worked for the Senate Democratic leadership, we were constantly awe-struck as Republicans continually opposed broadly popular legislation with seemingly no negative political consequences. The State Children's Health Insurance Program and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act are two examples.

Part of the reason "just say no" worked for so long is that it's hard not to blame the party in power when legislation fails. We would explain to anyone who'd listen that when you need sixty yes votes and start out with an immovable wall of forty no's, you're not left with any margin of error. While that may be true, it's not an easy story to tell. And as a result, Democrats lost the messaging war time and time again.

The midterm Republican wave of 2010 appeared to be proof that "just say no" works. Exultant, Republicans approached the lame duck session determined to punt the agenda until the House flips in January. But a funny thing happened on the way to the recess: the ever-dependable strategy of no finally betrayed them.

To be fair, "just say no" was a victim of its own success. It had worked so well for so long that Washington had become trained to believe that nothing of consequence could possibly pass the Congress. When the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell was approved last week, that assumption crumbled.

Repealing DADT should have been a slam-dunk. It had the support of the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and two-thirds of the American people. If Republicans hadn't created an environment where defeat seemed inevitable, the response to DADT repeal's passage would've been "what took so long?" Instead, it's seen as a major victory for Democrats and President Obama.

This week, Republicans have a tough choice to make. Both of the major bills on this week's agenda -- the New START treaty and the 9/11 Health Bill -- enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support from nearly everyone outside the walls of the Capitol building. Voting no will be particularly hard to defend. If enough Republicans join with Democrats to pass both of these bills, President Obama will have a legislative hat trick and tremendous momentum heading into the New Year. If Republicans count DADT as a fluke and stick with "just say no," they will face a barrage of criticism just as they're looking to build their own momentum for the new Congress.

For four years, the GOP rode the "just say no" strategy with astonishing success. This week may finally be its swan song. If so, that's good news for President Obama -- and great news for the American people.

David Meadvin was chief speechwriter for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. He is president of Inkwell Strategies, a Washington, DC-based speechwriting and communications firm.