- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2002

Democratic leaders still seemed to be a state of deep denial this week as the lame-duck 107th Congress returned to wrap up its unfinished business.

If the voters sent Congress a discernible message last week, it certainly was not an endorsement of what House and Senate Democratic leaders were peddling in the last two years. Yet there were no signals from any Democrat in a position of responsibility that they got the real message.

True, House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt resigned his post after failing to put his party back in charge in the last four elections. But he was replaced by California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, one of his party's most liberal leaders, who makes Missouri's Mr. Gephardt look like a raving centrist.

Mrs. Pelosi not only voted against President Bush's tax cuts but against the resolution on Iraq that called for the destruction of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, by military force if necessary. (Even Dick Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle supported the resolution.)

Mrs. Pelosi is known on Capitol Hill as a "knee-jerk" liberal who never met a tax or domestic spending hike she didn't like. She is genetically hostile to the business community's agenda, hates parental vouchers to free inner city kids from failing schools, and thinks the economy is underregulated.

In the Senate, Tom Daschle (who will be majority leader for just a few more days) is unrepentant about his failure to craft a message and raise a standard that voters could support.

Despite organized labor's richly financed, voter turnout campaign, an angry Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's veteran political director, says the Democrats lost Congress because they had no clear agenda.

Not so, Mr. Daschle maintains. He and Dick Gephardt put together a good agenda on the economy, jobs and other issues. The only problem was in marketing. We didn't sell it effectively, he says.

Their hastily written economic program, if you recall, was unveiled a few weeks before the elections. It was promoted as a jobs program, but it was loaded with spending for the unemployed and contained little if anything to put people back to work.

It is hard to see how any sales campaign could have sold this turkey.

Extending unemployment benefits may help those out of work, but they do not create any new jobs. A majority of voters understood this and liked the Republicans' pro-growth, tax-cutting proposals better.

Early analysis of the congressional results suggests the continuation of a trend that is is bad for the country and especially bad for the Democrats.

In election after election, the Democratic Party is losing its vital center.

What remains is a party made up largely of the hard left Mrs. Pelosi, Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts and Reps. Charlie Rangel of New York and John Conyers of Michigan that is far outside the American political mainstream.

There are a number of clues in this election that spell trouble for the Democrats. Getting 95 percent of the black vote is no longer a sure thing for many Democrats, as Kathleen Kennedy Townsend discovered in her losing gubernatorial race in Maryland. Younger black voters are becoming more independent and some are siding with the GOP.

Hispanics are increasingly up for grabs in presidential elections, though still lean Democratic in congressional races. Even so, they favor school choice, Social Security investment accounts, a strong defense and are very conservative on social issues.

The labor vote is become more fractured, too, as Mr. Bush and the GOP reach out to them with job-creating proposals, like drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A labor union member in Minnesota told me, "I no longer vote the union line."

This raises the specter of future Democratic losses in presidential and congressional elections to come. The party of George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis appears to be back.

Bill Clinton held the left and centrist-leaning wings of his party together while he approved trade expansion, welfare reform and even capital-gains tax cuts. "But now there is no counterweight. And that is what makes the Democratic Party's current predicament so dangerous," the New Republic magazine says in this week's issue.

If the party is going to be run by Nancy Pelosi and her liberal warriors, "the United States will no longer be a 50-50 nation; it will be a 40-60 nation for a generation," the magazine warns.

Now the internal political bickering begins and the endless postelecton self-analysis. But one thing is already clear. The Democrats have taken a sharp swing to the left, a move that kept them in the political wilderness for most of the last three decades.

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

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