- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

All right, the election is over, President Bush has been inaugurated into a second term, and the Republicans have strengthened their majority in Congress. Now the battle over agendas begins.

We know what Mr. Bush’s agenda is. He ran on it: Social Security reform; making the tax code simpler, fairer and less costly; legal reform; cutting the deficit; and slaying the terrorist threat by turning its breeding grounds into nonthreatening democracies allied with the United States.

But what is the agenda of the Democratic opposition? If anyone has seen it, read it or heard about it, call my office. Political parties are usually defined by what they propose to make the country stronger, safer and better. But the Democrats seem determined to define themselves by what they oppose.

They oppose doing anything about Social Security’s coming insolvency, let alone helping younger workers build a comfortable retirement nest egg they can own and that will pay them handsome dividends.

They don’t want any limits on rapacious liability lawyers that are driving doctors’ insurance costs through the roof and health costs into the stratosphere. They complained about the deficits in the last campaign, but they have introduced not one noticeable bill to reform a runaway budget process, let alone legislation to cut government waste and fat.

As for the war against terrorism, the Democrats’ primary contribution to the heroic struggle for a free Iraq has been an unending drumbeat of criticism of our military presence there. John Kerry, who for a short while was the titular head of the party in the 2004 election, defined himself by voting against appropriations providing funds for our troops in Iraq.

Now it appears former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — who defined his failed presidential candidacy by his total opposition to the war in Iraq — has become the front-runner for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship, a position that will run the party for the next four years.

Putting the chief crusader of the nation’s far left, antiwar voting bloc in charge of their party sends a poor message about the Democrats’ posture on national security and the war on terrorism — a pivotal trust issue that led to the GOP’s sweeping victory last November.

In the wake of the Democrats’ disastrous defeat, rank-and-file leaders promised a re-evaluation of their party’s policies and a debate about what it stood for. But in the weeks and months that followed, what we saw was a party challenging the election’s outcome in states like Ohio and doubting the veracity of Mr. Bush’s victory.

For some years now, the Republicans have certainly been the party of new ideas: Tax cuts to promote investment, new business creation and making American industry more competitive in the global economy; medical care savings accounts to help expand health insurance coverage; school choice vouchers to help inner-city minorities move their kids into better-performing schools; universal, tax-free savings accounts, like Roth IRAs, to encourage more savings and investment and a stake in the American economy.

Now, 10 years after Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took control of Congress, the GOP is pushing a new generation of ideas to reach out to a larger electorate and cement their political gains.

Ken Mehlman, Mr. Bush’s brilliant campaign manager who became Republican National Committee chairman last week, ticked off the ideas he said will appeal to future voters who have been the Democrats’ key constituencies: Younger people who support Social Security investment accounts; African-American voters who embrace Mr. Bush’s faith-based social service programs; and Hispanics and Latinos drawn to the Republican emphasis on an entrepreneurial, upwardly mobile economy that encourages small business growth, especially among ambitious, hardworking immigrants pursuing the American dream through lower taxes, legal reforms and increased access to the marketplace.

You would have to search very hard among the Democrats’ campaign rhetoric last year to find any consistent themes about entrepreneurs, the need to boost tax-free savings and capital investment. Indeed, the words “entrepreneurs” and “tax-free” are not in the Democrats’ economic lexicon.

It’s safe to say the Democratic Party today is bereft of new ideas about where it wants to take the country.

Instead, its leaders are reduced to fighting a timid, rear-guard battle for the status quo that says: Don’t touch Social Security, it’s fine the way it is; don’t reform the tax code to make it more conducive to economic growth, raise the top rates on people who invest and pay most of the taxes; don’t cut federal regulations, businesses should be regulated even more; don’t lower or eliminate trade tariffs to open new markets for American goods, raise them to keep out the competition.

This is not an agenda of the future, but of the past. As long as the Democrats cling to it, the base of their party will suffer continuing political erosion for many years to come.

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

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