- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

Democrats, frustrated by President Bush's popularity, are squabbling over their campaign agenda, retreating on some issues and losing support at the party's base five months before the midterm elections.
With the battle for control of Congress turning on relatively few close races for the House and Senate, the Democrats are arguing internally about what they should stand for and searching for issues to use against Mr. Bush and the Republicans in the fall campaigns.
In a move that some Democrats think was ill-advised, Democratic leaders unleashed a harshly worded attack on the Bush administration, suggesting the president knew more before September 11 than he said he did about the threat of terrorist attacks. But party leaders quickly backed off or toned down their offensive last week when the tactic ran into resistance from the public and a strong counterattack from Republicans.
Embarrassed, Democratic strategists began criticizing their leadership's decision to attack the administration on what polls showed was its strongest ground, urging them to stick to domestic social-welfare issues and cede national security issues to Mr. Bush.
"People trust George Bush to deal with this problem," said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, whose polls show the president getting high marks from voters on his handling of the terrorist threat.
But in a strongly worded memorandum last week, the Democratic Leadership Council lectured Democratic leaders against retreating on the issue. Pointing out that every poll shows national security and homeland defense at the top of voter concerns, "this is a particularly bad time for Democrats to go brain-dead on security," the DLC said.
Such a strategy would be "reminiscent of the Democratic 'politics of evasion' of the 1980s," the centrist political organization said in a memo.
"Today, with Democratic vulnerability on 'toughness to govern' issues including national security, crime and fiscal discipline rapidly re-emerging, it's especially important that Democrats refuse to backslide towards the silly 'issue ownership' mentality that helped keep them in the political wilderness for so many years.
"It's almost insulting for Democrats to tell security-conscious Americans that what they really need is not better intelligence gathering or a serious homeland security effort, but a prescription drug benefit," the DLC said.
The DLC also criticized Democratic leaders for being so accusatory in attacking Mr. Bush. "The Watergate language used by some congressional Democrats, suggesting a gleeful partisan effort to assign blame for 9/11, is neither credible nor constructive," the memo said.
Such questions what did the president know and when did he know it? faded away last week, largely because of the strong bipartisan support that Americans give Mr. Bush for his attention to national security since September 11.
Even Democratic voters, by a margin of 37 percent to 33 percent, preferred the administration's approach to the war on global terrorism to their own party's proposals, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
A separate series of focus-group polls to test issues for the Democrats showed that "only on terrorism and security do Democrats lose," Democratic strategists James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Robert Shrum wrote in a memo.
This was not the first time Democratic leaders struck out on an issue that they and the Democratic National Committee saw as a home run in a critical election year. Democrats tried to make issues out of the Enron Corp. bankruptcy and stock scandal, the administration's $1.35 trillion tax cuts, the end of the budget surpluses and the return of deficits. Yet all failed to gain significant political traction.
Notably, Pew's poll showed substantial unhappiness among Democrats' voter base. Sixty-four percent of Democrats said they approved of the leadership's job performance, and nearly half said they were not doing enough to stand up for working people, minorities and the poor.
"Of course [these numbers] disturb me. I'd like to see more leadership on the part of the Democrats, but we're starting to see some change," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal Democratic advocacy group.
"We've just come out of a period where it was very hard to criticize the president," Mr. Hickey said. "But now the Democrats are finding their voice. It is going to be on the domestic issues where the elections are going to be decided."
Mr. Bush's job-approval ratings remain in the high 70s, and the economy is showing increasing signs of bouncing back, so much so that some Democrats say it is no longer a significant issue.
"The perception that the economy is in good shape is rising, now to 59 percent, up from 51 percent at the end of 2001," the Carville-Greenberg-Shrum memo said. "That is producing an issue shift, away from the economy" and toward health care, education and crime.


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