Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Democrats’ election-year agenda, which says what they will do if the voters put them back in charge of Congress, would seek to overturn or change just about everything President Bush and the Republicans have done since 2001.

Key parts of their agenda call for repealing the bulk of the administration’s tax cuts, ending the ban on federal funding for new lines of stem-cell research and limiting some of the investigative, prosecutorial and surveillance methods in the counterterrorism USA Patriot Act.

Many of the details of their agenda may not be that widely known among rank-and-file voters, but opinion surveys show that ignorance may not matter as the election moves into its final weeks. On just about every major issue — Iraq, terrorism, the economy, health care, immigration and ethics in government — voters say they trust Democrats more than the Republicans to do a better job of handling them, according to recent polls.

But a top election pollster questions whether Democrats’ agenda will play that much of a role in the election’s outcome and whether many voters even know whether they have offered alternatives to Mr. Bush’s policies. At the same time, a Democratic defense-policy strategist thinks his party’s national-security proposals were excessively watered down to appeal to a broader electorate.

“If the Democrats win, it will have all the elements of a Forrest Gump victory. In other words, things swirling around them over which they were barely aware,” independent pollster John Zogby said, referring to the slow-thinking movie character who always succeeded, but without any grand design in mind.

“There will not be a proactive agenda that wins this for them. I don’t know if the electorate sees the Democrats as having an alternative to the Bush plan. They’ve put it out, but the party’s leadership hasn’t led with it,” Mr. Zogby said. “They have pretty much sought to avoid a discussion of Iraq.”

This would stand in contrast to the 1994 congressional sweep by Republicans who ran on their comprehensive, highly detailed “Contract With America,” giving them a more-sweeping mandate than is likely for the Democrats.

Any Democratic agenda would still be constrained by Mr. Bush in the White House and his veto power.

Democratic leaders call their agenda “A New Direction for America,” but much of its details are what Republican leaders call “boilerplate” Democratic dogma that the party has been proposing for years, such as raising the federal minimum wage to $7.25, rolling back the Bush tax cuts, expanding new stem-cell research, raising taxes on oil companies and boosting government spending for college-tuition loans and Pell Grants.

On the war in Iraq, the Democrats’ agenda calls for “a tough, smart plan to transform failed Bush administration policies in Iraq” and for a “phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq.”

To combat terrorism, it proposes to “double the size of Special Forces to destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorist networks like al Qaeda” and to “rebuild a state-of-the-art military capable of projecting power wherever necessary.” Both provisions, national-security analysts say, have been at the heart of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s military reforms ever since the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Michael O’Hanlon, a national-security analyst at the Brookings Institution who often advises Democratic congressional leaders, says that although the agenda’s phased redeployment “is not cut and run, I would rather see Democrats offer some more ideas about what we could do in Iraq to make things better.”

“At least this [agenda] avoids the problem of being too extreme. They are generally trying to be responsible and reasonable. But it’s still thin gruel, given how much we need good ideas,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.

Democratic officials, however, said their agenda was a key factor in their consistent lead in the election polls.

“We are talking about it in campaigns across the country and we’ll keep talking about it,” said Stacie Paxton, a Democratic National Committee spokesman.

On the agenda’s Iraq proposals, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s chief spokesman, Brendan Daly noted that even former Republican Secretary of State James A. Baker III “now says we need significant changes in strategy in Iraq.”

A major domestic-policy plank in the Democrats’ agenda is a rollback of the tax cuts, which has become the party’s campaign mantra. But there is division within the party’s ranks over how far they should go in attempting to repeal the across-the-board tax cuts that lowered tax rates for low-to-moderate income workers and doubled the child-tax credit that affects mostly middle-income families.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, who likely would become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee if the Democrats win the House back, has said that he could not think of a single Bush tax cut that he supported and suggested that all of them should be repealed. But Mrs. Pelosi, who would be in line to become speaker, said last week that the tax-cut rollback would only affect people earning $250,000 a year or more.

“But the consequences of repealing all the Bush tax cuts would hit people in much lower income-tax brackets and millions more who were removed from the tax rolls by Bush’s reforms,” said Scott A. Hodge, chief executive of the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

“There are about 15 million more taxpayers off the tax rolls today, compared to the end of the Clinton administration. Almost all of those people have incomes below $50,000 a year. Many have children who not only receive the $1,000-per-child tax credit, but also the refundable earned-income tax credit for families in need of additional income,” Mr. Hodge said.

“They would all be back on the tax rolls if you repealed the Bush tax cuts,” he said.

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