- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2002

Democrats are deeply dissatisfied with the way House and Senate Democratic leaders are doing their jobs.
While Democratic leaders Richard Gephardt and Tom Daschle have been shamefully playing "gotcha" politics with America's war against terrorism, the message from their party's grass roots is "get off it and get back to bread-and-butter domestic issues that concern us."
That blunt message was delivered to them in a recent poll by the independent Pew Research Center, which found that only 64 percent of Democratic voters approved of their leader's job performances. That anemic score stunned party leaders here, especially when compared to the strong 80 percent approval rating Republicans give their leadership.
But other poll findings are even worse news for the Democrats. "Perhaps more significant, barely half of Democrats [51 percent] say the party is doing an excellent or good job of standing up for such core principles as representing the interests of working people, protecting minorities and helping the poor," according to the poll.
These constituencies represent the bedrock of the Democratic Party's political base. If close to half of them are unhappy with what their party leadership is doing, that could spell trouble for the Democrats in this year's elections.
Moreover, other polls are showing that 44 percent of Hispanics who make up a major part of the Democratic base now say they support President Bush and will vote for him in 2004. While Hispanics tend to vote more heavily for Democrats in congressional elections, Mr. Bush's popularity could tip more of them into the GOP's column this fall.
The Pew survey of 1,002 adults, conducted between May 6 and May 16, found that nearly half of the Democrats they polled 46 percent "express general disapproval of the job Democratic leaders in Congress are doing."
What this says is that grass-roots Democrats are not happy with the let's-damage-Bush-at-any-costs tactics of Messrs. Gephardt and Daschle, especially their growing criticism of his handling of the war on terrorism.
Democratic leaders appeared to pull back last week from their insinuations that Mr. Bush may have known much more about the terrorist threats before the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. This was partly due to the White House's effective counteroffensive led by Vice President Dick Cheney. But it was also the result of negative feedback Democratic leaders got from party strategists who said that their political assault on Mr. Bush's handling of the war was not playing well in the country's heartland.
Andrew Kohut, Pew's chief pollster, explains why the Democrats' latest attacks failed so miserably: "The Republican Party continues to inspire much more confidence than the Democrats on major international issues the war against terrorists and the conflict in the Middle East," he said in his report on the poll's findings.
"When it comes to the war on terrorism, a sizable number of Democrats think the Republicans have better ideas than their own party," Mr. Kohut said. Independents, by more than 2-to-1, think so, too.
In a news analysis of the Democrats' hasty retreat from their latest skirmish with Mr. Bush, The Washington Post hardly a Bush ally said that if the Democratic leadership had learned anything from the experience, "they have learned that anything that smacks of questioning Bush's competence is a losing strategy."
As for the Democrats' demands for an independent commission to investigate how the administration responded to the terrorist threat, and why it was unable to prevent the attacks (a bipartisan House and Senate intelligence panel is already doing this), Democratic pollster Mark Mellman had this bit of advice for them last week: "People trust George Bush to deal with this problem. There will be little to be found out that will cause people not to trust him to deal with this problem."
All of this comes at a time when the Democrats have been struggling to find an issue, any issue, that energizes their base and reaches out to swing voters.
They tried making an issue of Bush's tax cuts, the disappearance of the budget surplus in the midst of war and recession, the Enron bankruptcy scandal, the economy, and even how long U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan after only weeks of warmaking against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces there. All of them failed to get any traction with voters.
Last week they tried the what-did-Bush-know-and-when ploy, and that not only failed to catch hold with the electorate, it alienated many of their party's rank-and-file.
Party advisers like Mr. Mellman think the Democrats ought to stick with issues that his polls show are enormously popular with Democrats, issues like prescription drug benefits and strengthening Social Security.
But right now the Democrats appear to be a deeply divided, disgruntled party, without any cutting issues, without an election strategy and without any effective political leadership in Congress.

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