- The Washington Times - Monday, May 2, 2005

While trying to understand the flow of events, it’s a good idea to keep in mind the basic fundamentals that tend to guide the players and point to different outcomes.

The first is that the 2004 election reshaped the electorate. Total turnout was up 16 percent, an extraordinary amount, matched in magnitude only four times over the last 108 years. John Kerry’s vote total was 16 percent higher than Al Gore’s, while George W. Bush’s vote total was up a huge 23 percent from four years before.

The NEP exit poll showed voters with a party identification of 37 percent Republican and 37 percent Democratic, the first time Republicans have equaled Democrats since random sample was invented in 1935. No American under age 80 has ever seen such a Republican electorate.

The second fundamental is that in the 2004 cycle, Old Media influence declined, while New Media influence increased. Old Media — the New York Times, CBS, ABC, NBC — is staffed mostly by liberals, and their work product inevitably reflects this. New Media — talk radio, Fox News Channel, the Internet Web logs, together called the blogosphere — are in many cases staffed by conservatives, and their work product reflects it.

In the old days, when Old Media had an effective monopoly on what most voters learned about politics and government, you would not have heard much about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth charges against John Kerry or seen any questioning of the forged documents Dan Rather relied on in his “60 Minutes II” broadcast aimed at undermining George W. Bush. But in 2004, thanks to New Media, the Swift Vets got a hearing and Dan Rather’s documents were proved dubious by the blogosphere in less than 24 hours.

For the last several weeks, Mr. Bush and Republicans have been taking a beating in Old Media. Yet when you look at the state of play, you find they’re not doing as badly as that suggests.

The Republican Congress has passed bankruptcy and class action legislation with plenty of Democratic support. Last week, it passed a budget resolution with room for tax cuts and that seems to ensure oil drilling in the tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The House Republicans backed down and rescinded their ethics rules changes, but they did so in the confidence Old Media’s target, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, has done nothing that violates House rules. The Senate Republicans seem to be moving ahead toward a rules change that would allow a majority of senators, not 41 Democrats, to determine who will or will not be a federal appeals court judge or — the real stakes — a Supreme Court justice.

Back in January, Senate Democrats were saying they would shut down the Senate if Republicans made this rule change. Now they are singing a different tune. Minority Whip Richard Durbin, one of the most partisan Democrats, assures everyone they won’t really obstruct very much at all.

For Democrats know that obstruction does not play well at the polls. Voters at some point ask what you stand for. Old Media won’t paint Democrats as obstructionists. But New Media can. For years, Sen. Tom Daschle received positive coverage in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, South Dakota’s dominant newspaper. But during the 2004 campaign, several local anti-Daschle blogs took on Mr. Daschle and the paper, and circulated stories that put him in a less favorable light. After having won seven elections in South Dakota, Mr. Daschle lost in 2004.

In his press conference last week, George W. Bush pointed the way to a progressive solution for Social Security. You pay for low-income workers’ personal accounts by cutting high-income workers’ future benefits. You let low-income workers accumulate wealth as most Americans already do over a lifetime, and the cost to high-income workers is low because they depend less on Social Security anyway.

At the moment, Democrats seem determined to reject this progressive approach. But even Old Media’s polls, often slanted on this as on other issues, show voters recognize there is a problem. So far as I can tell, no Republican was defeated in 2002 or 2004 by a Democrat who pledged “no change in Social Security.” Republicans who had a plan beat Democrats whose plan was a blank piece of paper.

How this issue will play out in Congress is unclear. But do Democrats want to face this reshaped electorate and our reconfigured media with no message but obstructionism?

Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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