- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

Midway through the warmup for next year’s elections, President Bush is at the top of his game: cutting income taxes, stoking the economy, boosting the stock market, capturing terrorists and keeping the Democrats against the ropes.

The Treasury Department is sending out millions of notices this week, detailing the new reduced income tax withholding rates for workers that take effect this month. That means higher take-home pay and an added stimulus to the economy. The higher child tax credit rebate checks will be sent out in July, strengthening family finances.

And there could be more: The Federal Reserve was expected to give a further boost to the economy this week by cutting interest rates again.

On Capitol Hill, the president seems to running on all cylinders and boosting all his bases:

c The House voted last week to make the elimination of the estate tax permanent, a big issue that resonates with small businesses.

• President Bush will sign legislation this summer to ban partial-birth abortions, the top issue for social conservatives.

• Supply-side conservatives are ecstatic with the tax cuts that total $1.7 trillion and will likely climb higher before next year’s elections.

True, there is some grumbling among his conservative activist base on the huge, Bush-backed, $400 billion prescription drug bill that is speeding through Congress. But House Democrats were pushing a bill that is twice as costly, so Mr. Bush comes out as a moderate by comparison.

Whatever its policy impact, the bill’s political impact could be enormous. Democrats had hoped to run on the issue next year, but if Mr. Bush signs a bill by July Fourth, that issue will vanish.

Not including the Medicare reform bill, Mr. Bush has presided over a $200 billion rise in federal spending in the past two years, much of its driven by the nation’s response to the terrorist attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and homeland defense.

That figure sounds immense and by any real measurement it is. But the increase represents just 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, or all the goods and services produced by our $11 trillion economy. And defense and national security spending account for four-tenths of that 1 percent increase.

Abroad, the rebuilding and recovery of Iraq is moving forward, despite intermittent attacks by remnants of Saddam Hussein loyalists. The arrest of Saddam’s senior aide, Abid Hamid Mahmud, is a major breakthrough that could lead to the discovery of his biological and chemical weapons cache.

The liberation of Iraq, which is enjoying long-forbidden freedoms like a free press and women’s rights, has sparked student protests in Iran whose citizens want the same freedoms in their country.

Mr. Bush’s victories have left many Democrats dismayed and depressed.

Election analysts now say Republicans are likely to add from one to three seats to their Senate majority next year. And prospects of retaking the House appear dim to nonexistent unless the country takes a real turn for the worse.

But hoping for some national catastrophe or a recession is not much of an agenda to run on.

Last week Democrats, and many of their presidential hopefuls, gathered here for yet another party forum to search for a message that could unite their party and make them competitive in 2004. But at the end of a daylong conference of the centrist New Democrat Network, there seemed to be more self-criticism than agreement.

“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,” said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

Mr. Richardson is cutting taxes in his state to boost jobs and economic growth, and he thinks his national party should be pushing tax cuts, too, like a partial income tax credit to offset Social Security payroll taxes “to spur the economy.”

Other deviations from Democratic orthodoxy were also proposed. “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,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Helping the poor was fine, but the party has been neglecting the higher income, two-earner middle-class family, said former Democratic National Chairman Joe Andrew who is running for governor in Indiana.

Instead of “fighting for the working poor,” Democrats should just say “we’re fighting for people who just work,” he said. Well, sure.

In a sobering briefing of the political lay of the land, Democratic pollster Mark Penn said Mr. Bush would beat any Democrat by nearly 10 points if the election were held today. Mr. Bush had a 22-point lead among suburban men and a 15-point lead among rural women.

Yes, there were issues Democrats scored well on, health care and education, but when Mr. Penn asked voters if they would vote for Mr. Bush on the basis of issues or leadership ability, nearly 50 percent chose the latter and only 40 percent chose issues.

It was a grim presentation that seemed to spread a pall of gloom over the room. Democrats don’t have much to cheer about nowadays, while Mr. Bush seems to be riding high.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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