- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Democrats searched for an election message yesterday at yet another party forum, urging a new attack on poverty, an across-the-board cut in Social Security taxes and a tougher posture on national security.

A long line of Democratic lawmakers and presidential hopefuls presented their agenda-setting ideas before a daylong conference of the New Democrat Network, a centrist-leaning grass-roots organization that raises campaign money and endorses candidates. Although each had a different prescription for what ails their party, all of them agreed on one thing: Stop the political squabbling and focus on fashioning a new agenda and defeating President Bush.

“We Democrats, whether we are moderates or liberals, must recognize that in recent years we have failed to articulate a clear and compelling Democratic alternative to the Republican mantra of tax cuts,” said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

“Rather than finding common ground on our central values,” Mr. Richardson said, “too often we have tried to survive through finesse and camouflage. We have not shown ourselves to the American people, and as a consequence, many Americans don’t seem to know who we are.”

Ironically, despite his criticism of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, Mr. Richardson has enacted across-the-board tax cuts of his own at home to stimulate jobs and economic growth in his state and he urged Democrats to push a national tax cut:

“Propose a partial income-tax credit for payroll taxes to help all families and to spur the economy,” he said.

In a major new policy initiative to jump-start his sagging campaign, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut proposed a new war on poverty.

Declaring that “more than 8 million Americans don’t have enough to eat,” Mr. Lieberman said that as president he and his party should set a goal “to reduce the poverty rate to the lowest it has ever been in our history within four years — and then to go further — to cut the rate of poverty in this country by one-third in ten years.”

Mr. Lieberman said he would cut the poverty rate by “reinvigorating the economy with a growth and prosperity plan that works” to create jobs. His proposal includes expansion of the earned income-tax credit, ending the marriage penalty, and helping the working poor save money by increasing funding for child care and job training.

But some Democrats urged their party to abandon its focus on the working poor and other class warfare rhetoric and reach out to the voters at large.

“Nobody represents the middle class,” said former Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew, who is running for governor of Indiana. Instead of “fighting for the working poor,” Democrats should just say “we’re fighting for people who just work.”

Instead of constantly criticizing tax cuts, “we need to begin talking about putting money in people’s pockets,” he said.

Sen. Blanche L. Lincoln of Arkansas suggested that “we have to be reasonable when we talk about taxes. We have to also talk about what the American people are going through to make ends meet.”

Freshman Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama sounded the same theme, telling the conference that “our party needs to talk about social mobility, not in terms of class warfare.”

Pollster Mark Penn said that while the Democrats had to overcome a number of weaknesses with voters, including a huge voter gap among male voters, they had a number of opportunities to win back the White House on issues like the economy, education and health care.

Still, if the election were held today, Mr. Bush would defeat the Democratic candidate by at least 9 percentage points, largely because of the president’s huge lead on “leadership ability,” Mr. Penn said.

But Mr. Richardson told the Democratic gathering that the party had to stake out a stronger position on national security, an issue that ranks third in Mr. Penn’s survey of most-important voter concerns.

“We need to show Americans that we understand and care about national defense,” he said.

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