- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2002

Democrats saying the economy is no longer a major issue is nearly the political equivalent of giving up in the 2002 congressional elections.

With many polls showing that the economy and jobs even in the midst of the recovery are among the top five major concerns of most Americans, you would think that top Democratic leaders would be flogging this issue for everything it's worth. Not only are Democratic leaders rarely talking about the economy these days, three top party advisers are telling them that it is now a non-issue.

That's what Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg, James Carville and Bob Shrum told House and Senate Democratic leaders in a recent confidential memo I acquired titled "Defining The 2002 Election."

"As we argued a month ago, less worry about the economy is likely to shift voters to other issues ones that are more favorable to Democrats," they said. Citing their latest focus-poll data, their memo states flatly, "that this is now happening." Then, in an extraordinary statement that is sure to find its way into Republican campaign ads this fall, their memo says this: "The perception that the economy is in good shape is rising, now to 59 percent, up from 51 percent at the end of 2001. That is producing an issue shift, away from the economy," they said.

The economy is now well into its recovery, there can be no doubt that, especially after the stunning 5.6 percent growth rate in the first quarter of this year. Since then, economic indicators have all been good.

Productivity is stronger than ever. Consumer spending helped by the Bush tax cuts is holding up remarkably well. Corporate revenues and profits are improving, though not fast enough to dissipate Wall Street's bearish, pessimistic mood. Inflation is nonexistent. U.S. businesses are continuing to cut costs and thus are becoming even more competitive than they were before the recession.

U.S. manufacturing continued its comeback in May, marking its fastest growth rate in more than two years. The Conference Board's consumer-confidence index also climbed in May to its second-highest level in nine months. The housing market is booming as mortgage-interest rates continue to fall, and buyers are seeing housing values soar.

However, the 6 percent unemployment rate always the last economic number to move in a recovery remains at an eight-year high. You would think the Democrats would be all over this, especially when wage growth has been sluggish. Still, temp workers have been in higher demand lately, a sign that full-time hiring may not be far behind.

But Messrs. Greenberg, Carville and Shrum are counseling their party to write off the economy issue and concentrate on other issues that their focus group polls shows are much stronger among their base constituencies: health care, education, prescription drug benefits, Social Security and pension protection.

The Democrats have big government solutions to all of these issues, and that seems to be the direction in which their party is moving.

Last month another group of senior Democrats led by John Podesta, Bill Clinton's former White House chief of staff, produced a five-point campaign agenda plan similar to the Greenberg group.

Reporter Ronald Brownstein, in a Los Angeles Times article last week, called the plan "a stunning leap backward into pre-Clinton liberalism."

"It's a document Walter F. Mondale would have felt comfortable distributing," Mr. Brownstein wrote. It avoids any of the centrist thinking promoted by Mr. Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. "Instead, it seems inspired more by Al Gore's ill-fated 2000 campaign, which drifted back toward the old Democratic strategy of wooing interest groups with targeted programs."

All this is further inflaming the old liberal-centrist divisions that have long plagued the Democratic Party, and at the worst possible time: three months before the general election begins. Worse, it suggests that the party's dominant left wing is pushing to take over party policy, threatening to drag it back to the days of George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. And that is triggering a new war of words between the left and the centrist-leaning DLC wing of the party.

The Democrats cannot mount a credible campaign by dismissing economic issues and ceding national security and the war on terrorism to Mr. Bush and the Republicans. "Voters will not take Democrats seriously as a party to be entrusted with national leadership if they fail to address the most urgent set of national issues," the DLC lectured party leaders last week.

Since the Democrats took control of the Senate last year, Majority Leader Tom Daschle has shown his party that he knows how to stall and block Mr. Bush's agenda but that he's not very good at putting together a full-blown, alternative agenda to replace it. The result this week is a party that is still arguing over what it should stand for just five months before the voters go to the polls.

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

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