- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The door has been left wide open for Democrats to take over Congress, but they haven’t been able to walk through it. President Bush’s polls have been low, events in Iraq until recently have been discouraging, Republican scandals have been in the air, and the GOP has become the party of earmarks and spending. Pundits have expected the Democrats to nationalize the elections with a strong message to counter these Republican failings, but so far they have totally failed.

Not that the Democrats don’t have a message. They appear to be calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, higher taxes, an increase of the minimum wage, and higher spending on education and health care. But that’s just the same old same old.

Will the nation trust Democrats on national security? I don’t think so. Will the investor class trust Democrats on taxes and the economy? I don’t think so again. Should pundits count on Democrats nationalizing the midterm elections? I’d recommend against it.

Believe it or not, President George W. Bush might be the one to nationalize the election, and in doing so pull Republican chestnuts out of the fire.

In the Rose Garden this week, Mr. Bush predicted Republican victories in November, saying the GOP “philosophy is one that is forward looking and optimistic.” He’s right. The Democrats are still the party of pessimism. Vice President Cheney recently said Republicans will prevail in the midterms because of the strong economy and Bush administration ability to prevent another terrorist attack. Now that’s a winning message. And it’s filling a vacuum.

Killing Iraqi terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi triggered a chorus of Democratic negativism. A strong new government in Iraq elicited catcalls from Democratic Rep. John Murtha. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid showed up at a left-wing bloggers conference in Las Vegas, only to talk troop withdrawal and spit venom at Mr. Bush. Not a message to be seen.

The U.S. military takes over 400 al Qaeda hideaways and for all we know U.S. Special Forces are in hot pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Yet not a single Democrat can admit there is good news on the war front.

I sense a pattern here — and it is bad news for the party on the left. Democrats want to raise your taxes; Republicans want to reduce them. Democrats want to increase spending; Republicans want a reduction. Democrats want to cut and run from Iraq; Republicans want to finish the mission.

Is there a Democratic cure? Author Peter Beinart pushes the excellent idea “liberal hawks” should populate the Democratic Party. But except for Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, it is hard to find any. Sure, Tennessee House member Harold Ford voted in favor of extending the successful growth-producing investor tax cuts of 2003, but he is a lonely soul in the tax-the-rich party. Sen. Hillary Clinton wants to support our troops, but she was booed at a Take Back America gathering of liberal activists.

The Democrats’ problem is that they will not reach back and adopt the tough-arm national-security line from Harry Truman or the pro-growth tax-cutting policies of John Kennedy. The icons are out there, but today’s Democrats aren’t interested.

Of course, the GOP hasn’t won anything yet. To set themselves up for November, they must resolve the immigration debate with some sort of compromise. They also must continue their leaner budgeting ways, and must remember the Laffer-Curve mix of lower tax rates, strong growth, low unemployment and cascading budget revenues is what is shrinking the deficit. If they stick to that, they will take away another Democratic issue.

Here’s another policy thought: The idea of a minimum-wage increase is gathering political steam, and most economists agree wages can be set higher at the expense of businesses. But this also will mean unskilled workers will have to reach farther to grab hold of the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. However, there is a compromise. A modest minimum-wage increase could be coupled with tax cuts for both large and small companies. This would satisfy low-end workers hurt by rising gas prices, and would also make business more competitive.

President Bush has been frustrated with Republicans who have gotten away from the first principles of tax cuts and free-market economics and have moved toward international isolation and pessimism. But with a rejuvenated White House staff and a great break on Zarqawi, Mr. Bush has been spreading his gospel of a strong economy and powerful national defense. He is single-handedly saving the GOP from itself.

Whether he succeeds remains to be seen. But politics hates a vacuum. The Democrats had an opening and they couldn’t exploit it. Mr. Bush is filling that void, and slowly but surely the political tide is turning back in his favor.

Of course it’s a cliche, but I wouldn’t misunderestimate him again.

Lawrence Kudlow is host of CNBC’s “Kudlow & Company” and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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