- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Four senior Republicans are sending out a memo to GOP congressional candidates this week warning them that Democrats are about to attack. Too late the attack's already begun.

Former Reps. Vin Weber, Minnesota Republican, and Bill Paxon, New York Republican, former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, and former House leadership aide Ed Gillespie base their warning on another memo by senior Democrats advising that attacks on President Bush's economic policies are fair game, even if his war policies are off-limits.

The Democratic report, issued on Nov. 13 by pollster Stan Greenberg and strategists James Carville and Bob Shrum and updated last week, described the post-September 11 period as "a moment of opportunity" for Democrats.

"We agree," the Democrats wrote in mid-November, "that this is no time for partisan-sounding attacks" on Mr. Bush, but "Democrats should feel free to attack wrongheaded Republican congressional initiatives, even separating the House Republicans from the president."

Using this as their text, the Republicans are warning, "Don't think that the prevailing sense of national unity will prevent Democrats from resorting to vicious attacks and scare tactics next November."

However, Democratic leaders have jumped the gun. Both Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, launched decidedly partisan-sounding assaults on Mr. Bush's economic policies last week.

Rep. Nita Lowey, New York Democrat, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, announced that the DCCC ads would target "George Bush's recession."

And some other Democrats, led by those on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also have assailed Mr. Bush's anti-terrorism policies, notably his plan to bring foreign terrorists before military tribunals.

Polls indicate that the public overwhelmingly supports the president's rather limited infringements on civil liberties, suggesting Democrats are taking political risks in attacking him on that score assuming that Republicans make an issue of the matter.

However, the economy, the budget and Mr. Bush's tax cuts always were likely to be the dominant issues of the 2002 elections. Now they are, more or less officially.

Last Thursday, after White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels forecast federal deficits for the next three fiscal years, Mr. Gephardt declared that Mr. Bush "is mismanaging the economy with the help of his Republican colleagues in the Senate and House."

And Mr. Daschle responded that Mr. Daniels' projections proved that "what we did in economic policy with the passage of [Mr. Bushs] tax cut was a disaster not only for the economy but for our ability to respond to the aftermath of the crisis of September 11."

The White House countered this criticism by saying Democrats were getting back to "the way business has been done in Washington: finger-pointing and blaming."

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer also pointed out that tax cuts accounted for only $40 billion of the $154 billion decline in this year's budget surplus, with the rest of the shrinkage resulting from economic contraction and the aftermath of September 11.

Mr. Daniels noted that the economy began weakening in 2000, before Mr. Bush took office, then was given a further blow on September 11. "This is Osama bin Laden's recession," he said.

Democratic policy so far is following the playbook set out by Messrs. Greenberg, Shrum and Carville with one significant exception.

The three strategists argue in their memos that Democrats should go into the 2002 elections calling for "delaying the tax cuts passed earlier this year for the wealthiest 1 percent to protect the economy and the Social Security trust fund, as well as providing resources to meet immediate rebuilding and investment needs."

Thus far, Democratic congressional leaders have not recommended repealing or "delaying" top-rate cuts, but on Thursday the New Democrat Coalition did just that, proposing to use the $86 billion over 10 years to pay for expanded unemployment benefits and stimulative tax cuts.

According to one top Democratic House leadership aide, the likelihood is that Democrats will join in calling for the repeal of rate cuts for the rich, even though that is likely to lead to renewed Republican charges that Democrats represent the "tax-and-spend" party.

If Democrats are on the attack, so are Republicans. In fact, they were in fighting stance first, with conservative activists, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and White House aides trying to portray Mr. Daschle as the bogeyman blocking an economic-stimulus package.

In actuality, when Mr. Daschle arranged a top-level negotiating session that included Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card to begin working out a package last Wednesday evening, it was blown up by a Republican: Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas of California.

And the next day, Mr. Thomas went after both Mr. Daschle and Mr. Gephardt in hotly personal terms, charging that Mr. Gephardt "can't stand not being the center of attention" and implying that Mr. Daschle was stupid.

So that's where we are less than three months after death and grief brought Washington politicians together "shoulder to shoulder," as they used to say. The spirit of September 11 was bound to pass. It's sad that we're back to normal so soon.

Morton Kondracke is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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