- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

Democratic leaders have been struggling without success to develop strategic campaign issues that can energize their party's political base and cut into Republican strength in the elections this year.
And that is causing Democratic campaign strategists to complain about their party leadership's lack of a clear, coherent message in the midst of critical midterm elections that could end up putting Republicans in full control of Congress.
"All of the Democratic leaders are groping for a theme," said Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, a Democratic public policy advocacy group.
"They are conflicted. They are very clear in their long-term message about the budget, but the Democrats are very fuzzy and unclear about what they would do to create jobs and grow the economy," Mr. Hickey said.
The Democratic leaders] "are talking at cross purposes," said a veteran Democratic campaign adviser. "There is no plan. There is no well thought-out strategy, as near as I can tell."
The Democrats certainly do not lack potential issues. The economy, though emerging from a relatively brief recession, remains in a slump. The budget is headed toward a $100 billion deficit this year, forcing the Treasury to spend its Social Security surpluses. The Enron scandal has unsettled Wall Street and workers who now worry about the safety of their 401(k) retirement accounts.
But no matter how hard Democratic leaders have pounced on these and other issues, none of them has gained any political traction against the Bush administration or the Republican Party, according to the polls. Part of the reason has been Mr. Bush's political skill in co-opting Democratic issues.
"I just talked to some Democratic pollsters who have done recent polling, and they say when you ask people what the Republican plan is for jobs and growth, they can tell you it is tax cuts and that they will produce jobs and economic growth," Mr. Hickey said.
"When you ask them about the Democrats' plan, at best they say that we want to help the unemployed," without a clear understanding of what the party's agenda is, he said.
To frustrated Democrats such as Mr. Hickey, "the parties have changed roles." Mr. Bush and his Republican allies are constantly talking about jobs and economic growth, while Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have switched to "a green eyeshade view about spending" and talk more about fiscal responsibility, balanced budgets and the danger of deficits once the fiscal mantra of the Republican Party.
Last month, Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, gave an agenda-setting speech that sharply criticized Mr. Bush's tax cuts, saying they have made the economy worse. Mr. Bush shot back that Mr. Daschle wanted to raise taxes in a recession, a charge that had Democratic leaders in full retreat, saying they did not want to repeal any part of the president's tax cut plan.
"It's my view that we shouldn't be reconsidering tax cuts in the middle of a recession," House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt told the Democratic Leadership Council. Once a vociferous critic of Republican free trade deals, Mr. Gephardt, of Missouri, now says that "trade must be an engine of expanding opportunity."
He even borrowed a line from Mr. Bush's campaign stump speech, saying, "Government does not create jobs; the private sector creates jobs."
Former Vice President Al Gore has been further muddying the political waters for the Democrats by praising Mr. Bush more than he has criticized him. In a speech in New York last week that received a lot of media attention, Mr. Gore embraced the president's description of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil."
"As far as I'm concerned, there is really something to be said for occasionally putting diplomacy aside and laying one's cards on the table," Mr. Gore said. "There is value in calling evil by its name."
Part of the Democrats' failure to find an issue that cuts into Mr. Bush's strength and that of his party has to do with their habit of picking the wrong fights.
A memorandum circulated last month by Democratic strategists James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Bob Shrum said that "Enron has the potential to shape the entire political environment for 2002, impact other issues and reduce confidence in the Bush administration and Republicans."
But none of that has happened so far. Enron's bankruptcy has remained by and large a business scandal story, one that most voters do not associate with the White House or the two political parties.
Another reason for the Democrats' failure to find a set of issues with political bite has to do with the White House's adroit handling of key issues. In the case of Enron, Mr. Bush and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill began a government-wide, multi-agency investigation into the energy giant's collapse. They followed that up with a package of proposed legislative reforms to ensure that what happened to Enron's retirement funds would not happen to other companies in the future.
All of this has left Democratic leaders saying that their party will not run on a national message this year. Instead, they will run "on issues that are important in their district," said Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus.


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