- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

A new Web site defending Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, from Republican attacks is a good idea, but more steps are necessary to strengthen Democrats as they head toward the fall elections.
Along with attacking Republican priorities, Democrats need a positive agenda and a unified strategy to get their message out. As the nation's top-ranking Democrat, it is Mr. Daschle's job to get it all done.
So far, though, he's been doing it mostly alone. He has been out front as the leader of the opposition and the party's most visible spokesman and has been clobbered by Republicans in the process.
As reported in Roll Call Daily, former Daschle staffers and ex-senators are writing rebuttals to Republican charges on a new Web site, https://www.daschledemocrats.org, unveiled Tuesday.
The Web project was undertaken because Mr. Daschle's associates were dismayed no one spoke up for him after Republicans and allied groups charged that he was an "obstructionist," wanted to raise taxes and was helping Iraq's Saddam Hussein by blocking President Bush's energy plan.
But while Mr. Daschle at last will have surrogates defending him, they still aren't fellow senators and House members acting as a team to advance an agenda.
If Mr. Daschle speaks out on an issue, he should not only coordinate with other Democrats; they should also repeat what he says so the message will get through.
Forming a united front is complicated because so many Democrats are positioning themselves to run for president, including Mr. Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, Missouri Democrat.
When Mr. Daschle criticized Mr. Bush's economic policies in January and was attacked for it by Republicans from the president on down, no one rose to his defense.
Democrats were all over the lot on the key question of whether to delay or repeal Mr. Bush's $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut. And they still are.
Democrats turned in a somewhat better performance earlier this month when the majority leader said he had questions about the future course of Mr. Bush's anti-terror war.
When Republicans denounced Mr. Daschle and implied he was being unpatriotic, fellow presidential hopefuls, including Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, did speak up on his behalf.
However, Mr. Daschle's timing was bad and his follow-through was weak. He raised his questions about post-Afghan war policies just as U.S. forces were mounting their biggest ground combat operation of the war.
And under withering criticism for saying that the war in Afghanistan would be a "failure" if Osama bin Laden remained at large, Mr. Daschle pulled back and seemed to imply he would give Mr. Bush a free hand in waging war as he pleases.
It's the duty of the leader of the opposition party to ask hard questions about presidential policy, especially when troops might be sent to fight. Answering the questions could help Mr. Bush win public and foreign support.
So, to the extent possible, Mr. Daschle should try to organize fellow senators and House members to also ask questions. And Mr. Daschle's staff should rally Democratic ex-officials (and Republicans too) to defend their right to do so.
Besides playing defense, though, Democrats need to have a consistent line of attack on Bush-GOP domestic policies, have alternatives of their own, and make sure the country knows about them.
Democrats once expected that a bad economy would help them in the November elections. Now that the economy is recovering, though, they have a right to claim that their idea a $65 billion tax rebate last year helped restore prosperity.
Moreover, Mr. Daschle deserves more credit than he's getting for forcing Republicans and the White House to accept the short-term stimulus package and unemployment benefit extension that Mr. Bush just signed into law.
Democrats are in the process of assembling a campaign platform, sources say, that will include attacks on Mr. Bush's tax cuts, his Social Security privatization plan and his environmental record. There also will be positive proposals on pension reform, environmental cleanup and prescription drugs for seniors.
The unveiling of the agenda is said to be delayed by a debate over how to pay for the drug program. The alternatives include offsetting cuts in other programs, using Social Security surplus funds, and empowering the government to bargain down drug prices to cut costs.
In their latest Democracy Corps memo, liberal strategists James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stan Greenberg propose an agenda that adds significant investment in homeland security, a new college aid entitlement and universal health insurance all rolled together into an alternative vision to Republican tax cuts.
In pushing a Democratic agenda, Mr. Daschle is hampered by Senate rules and a nonexistent majority. Republicans can ram bills through the House to embarrass Mr. Daschle and give themselves cover on issues such as prescription drugs. Mr. Daschle needs 60 votes to pass anything.
So he has to organize his forces to assemble an agenda and push it as far as they can and do a much better job of letting the world know it exists. Republicans are ganging up on him, so he needs a gang to back him.

Morton Kondracke is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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