- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

For Democrats to win a majority in Congress, they must present a plan for fiscal discipline and building the economy while not getting trounced on national and homeland security, says House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer.
At a luncheon with editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday, Mr. Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland now in his 12th term, said that means proving to voters that Democrats have credibility on security issues.
"I think rhetorically we have to do it, I think substantively we have to do it," Mr. Hoyer said. "I think we've got to be for a strong national defense, we've got to be for a strong homeland security."
The debate in the Democratic Party after the 2002 elections, in which the "out" party Democrats lost House seats for just the third time this century, was whether the party should have moved more to the center or to the left.
As the No. 2 person among House Democrats, Mr. Hoyer will be instrumental in putting together the plan for Democrats heading into the 2004 elections, and he said the problem isn't the core Democratic domestic agenda.
"I think the Democratic message we need to stay true to ourselves and our beliefs," Mr. Hoyer said.
But he said that means presenting a clear counterpoint to Republicans on issues such as the budget, something House Democrats failed to do last year, when they didn't offer a competing budget.
"I think the majority of us think we've got to put forth our own budget," he said.
"One of the criticisms that, I think, took I don't think it's the reason we lost the election, but took was the Democratic message was not clear, that we subjected ourselves to the criticism, 'Well they don't even have a budget,'" Mr. Hoyer said. "I think we're much more prepared to look the president and the public in the eye and say these tax cuts are wacko. They're going to cause large debts, and they aren't going to pay for defending our country."
Mr. Hoyer, one of the Democrats who voted for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, said that contrary to what most observers think, the debt can be a compelling political issue: "From my perspective, it undermines leaving no child behind, it undermines our national defense," he said.
"Debt goes against both defense and domestic spending, both of which I'm for, as you know. That's why I'm a big spender," Mr. Hoyer said. "It's the guys in the middle who are both for domestic investment and for defense preparedness that are the high spenders in the United States Congress.
"I don't think anybody's going to repeal tax cuts. I think I'm certainly prepared to defer the top two levels of tax cuts until we [fix] our fiscal posture of the United States if we're going to prepare to go to war," he said. "I'm prepared to support revenues to pay for things, but I think passing them along as Ronald Reagan did, George Bush did and this George Bush is doing to future generations is immoral, unethical and bad policy. It does not seem to be bad politics."
Still, he said, the time is more ripe for Democrats' message now that the president has failed to right the economy. "I think this president was lucky in many respects. The economy issue had not yet really surfaced in the public's mind. I think it has now," he said.
Mr. Hoyer said Republicans' national electoral success was demonstrated in Maryland's governor's race, in which Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. beat Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. But he said her loss doesn't mean the party is in crisis in the state.
"I don't think the Democratic Party lost in Maryland. Our candidate lost, but Kathleen never ultimately connected with people. They liked her, she was a good person, but she didn't give them the confidence," he said, arguing that Democrats' success was in winning county executive slots in six of the seven large counties in the state, as well as the attorney general and comptroller slots.
He also said Mrs. Townsend's campaign made a mistake by not putting its lieutenant governor candidate, retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, forth more.
"Kathleen and the campaign … selected Larson, and then they never told people why. And the only way you tell people is put him on television and spend some time telling them why. Had they done that, I think we would have been in better shape," he said.
Mr. Hoyer credited President Bush with winning the security issue for Republicans last year, thus carrying them to victory.
"The Republican message was security, both at home and abroad. Unless you're in a depression and you're threatened, you tend to focus on security. You want to be safe. You worry about your job and health care and all that, but first you want to be safe," Mr. Hoyer said. "It was an excellent strategy. For 20 days, he said the same thing, just put in another candidate's name. And it was on the nightly news every night for 17 days, and I thought it was a very powerful message."
One challenge, he said, is forming a unified message, particularly in the face of Democrats who dissent on supporting the use of force in Iraq.
"We have a tougher problem, and when you don't have the presidency, i.e., Bill Clinton, to articulate, 'Well, we might have a lot of voices, but this is our message.' We have to work on that," Mr. Hoyer said.

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