- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The economic wind is at President Bush’s back, and the passage of a Republican-backed expansion of Medicare coverage to include a prescription drug benefit, political watchers say, leaves Democrats with few political bones to pick in 2004.

“The Democrats will be left running their whole 2004 campaign in the past tense,” said political consultant Dick Morris, who was a top aide to President Clinton. “They are out of issues.”

The Commerce Department announced yesterday that from July to September the economy grew by 8.2 percent, an upward revision of one percentage point from the government’s estimate in October and the most robust single-quarter growth in 19 years.

Consumer confidence grew by 6.4 percent from July through September, the fastest pace in six years. After-tax business profits rose 11.6 percent, and companies have poured those earnings into their businesses, reflected by the 16.7 percent increase in capital investment during the quarter.

At a fund-raising speech in Las Vegas yesterday, Mr. Bush touted his economic policies and urged his supporters to “put out the word that this is an optimistic and hopeful administration who’s getting the job done for the American people.”

“This economy of ours is reacting to our policy,” Mr. Bush said. “The American economy is strong, and it is getting stronger. The tax relief we passed is working.”

Republicans say the sunny economic news will make it harder for Democratic presidential candidates to convince voters that Mr. Bush’s policies are failing to revive the stagnant economy he inherited upon taking office in 2001.

“The leading economic indicator is that Democrats have stopped talking about the economy,” said Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat and presidential candidate, launched a Web site earlier this year to highlight how “this president has been a miserable failure on foreign policy and the economy.”

The site has not been updated since the sharp rise in gross domestic product was first reported last month.

“It is unfortunate that good news for the economy is bad news for the Democrats,” Mr. Grella said. “Practicing the politics of economic destruction has been a risky and unfruitful strategy for them.”

Yesterday’s economic reports were released at the same time the Senate passed a $395 billion Medicare reform package on the president’s terms. The political synergy is a blow to Democrats, Mr. Morris said.

“It has been brilliant,” Mr. Morris said. “You get a twofer. First, you pass a piece of legislation that the country wants, and you deprive the other side of the issue. Bush fast-forwarded the Democratic agenda and passed it.

“I think Bush has just secured a huge advantage in the campaign and done something good for the country in the bargain.”

Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said he thinks the “Medicare victory” is more important for Mr. Bush next year than the economic recovery, if only because it “takes an attack vehicle away from the Democrats.”

“What matters is what the economy is doing next summer,” Mr. Ornstein said. “It would be dangerous to extrapolate from today where we will be a year from now.”

If Democrats convince seniors that the Medicare legislation is ineffective — as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, has been arguing — the political benefits for Mr. Bush in 2004 could be muted, Mr. Ornstein said.

“It’s not at all clear to me that this will help [Mr. Bush] gain votes among the elderly,” Mr. Ornstein said. “I don’t think you will find many saying, ‘We’re saved. Thank God.’”

The difficult transition to democracy in Iraq is still a strong issue for Democrats, but Mr. Morris said the president is poised to take that from the table, too, if he follows through on a promise to reduce the troop level significantly by summer.

“I think the Democrats will look back at 2003 and feel very much like they did in 1971,” Mr. Morris said. “They could have won the election this year, but not next year.”

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