- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

Democratic strategists are growing restless and frustrated with their party leadership's failure to develop a clear, compelling message for the 2002 midterm congressional elections.

Their simmering frustration is now not only being vented in public, it threatens to reopen old ideological divisions between the party's liberal and centrist-leaning wings in the months to come.

Try as they might, nothing seems to be working for Democratic leaders who have been struggling to develop political issues that can resonate with voters, especially with their party's base. With just six months to go before the Labor Day kickoff of the election season, poll after poll shows Democrats are not only losing the trust of voters on national security issues arising out of the war on terrorism, they are losing key domestic issues that have long been their party's bread and butter.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll finds 62 percent of voters, cutting across every major demographic group, trust the president more than the Democrats (31 percent) to handle the country's problems.

A breakdown of the responses shows the Democrats are losing Middle America. People with household incomes between $50,000 and $75,000 trust Republicans over Democrats by 56 percent to 33 percent.

Democrats have been reluctant to talk openly about their party's problems and the failure by Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt to come up with issues that can cut into the GOP's strength. But in on-the-record and background interviews, Democratic activists are airing their complaints.

"All of the Democratic leaders are groping for a theme," said Roger Hickey, the co-director of Campaign for America's Future, a Democratic advocacy group that is becoming a major policymaking force within the party.

Mr. Hickey does not mince words. Democratic leaders "are very fuzzy and unclear about what they would do to create jobs and grow the economy," he told me.

Another Democratic adviser told me that Mr. Daschle and Mr. Gephardt all too often talked "at cross purposes. There is no plan. There is no well-thought-out strategy, as near as I can tell." Another party strategist seemingly throws up his hands, saying, "Nothing seems to be working for us right now."

It isn't as though the Democrats do not have potential issues. The economy, running flat-out during the Clinton years, has slowed to a sputter, though it shows new signs of recovery. The budget, after four straight surpluses, is headed toward a $100 billion deficit, forcing the Treasury to spend Social Security surpluses. The Enron scandal has spooked Wall Street and unsettled workers who worry about the safety of their 401(k) retirement accounts.

President Bush's skill in the art of co-opting issues and playing offense is part of the reason why these issues aren't cutting. Another is the Democrats' ineptness in picking and framing issues, and their own polls tell the story.

"I just talked to some Democratic pollsters who have done recent polling, and they say that when you ask people what the Republican plan is for jobs and growth, they 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.

What is maddening to Democratic warriors like Mr. Hickey is how "the parties have changed roles." Mr. Bush and the Republicans are constantly talking about jobs and expanding economic growth and opportunity, while the Democrats have switched to a Herbert Hoover-era, "green eyeshade view about spending," focusing on budgets and deficits once the fiscal mantra of pre-Reagan Republicans.

But running deficits in a time of war and a recession is perfectly understandable to most voters and to most Democrats.

That's why the confusing speech that Mr. Daschle gave last month about the budget and the tax cuts had no political impact on swing voters. It is hard for ordinary workers who see the income being taken out of their paychecks each week to accept Mr. Daschle's argument that the tax cuts have "made the economy worse."

Millions of homeowners who have refinanced their home mortgages as a result of falling interest rates were equally perplexed with Mr. Daschle's charge that President Bush's fiscal policies were causing interest rates to rise.

The Democrats' attempt to link Mr. Bush and the GOP to the Enron scandal has also turned into a dud. Hyperventilating party strategists James Carville and Bob Shrum circulated a memo last month saying Enron "has the potential to shape the entire political environment for 2002."

In their dreams. Mr. Bush and the GOP launched investigations into Enron at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and moved to recover Enron worker pension losses. Voters see the energy giant's collapse for what it is a scandal caused by corrupt company officials.

All this has Democratic Party officials abandoning any possibility of a national message in the fall campaign.

Instead, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost of Texas says the game plan now is for Democrats to run on local issues "that are important in their districts."

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

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