The Washington Times

For some years now, Republicans have complained about Democrats “stealing” their issues. From crime to welfare to balancing the federal budget, Democrats succeeded in operating successfully on what the GOP had grown accustomed to thinking of as its turf, and the result was a constant source of irritation for Republicans. President Bill Clinton was under their skin, and they had to scratch the itch – with unpleasant and self-destructive consequences familiar to the parent of any 5-year-old with a mosquito bite.

At times, this tendency has reached the point of political pathology: Republicans denouncing Democrats for adopting positions Republicans themselves have long favored. It’s the ne plus ultra of partisan antagonism: You will hate your political opponent down to every last detail, even if it is against your interest.

As Democrats convene in Los Angeles (I write this before the first night’s festivities have begun), what’s striking is that Republicans, in the form of the Bush campaign, for the first time seem to have had some success giving Democrats the needle. It’s hard to see how else to characterize the response of a number of Democrats to the charm offensive the GOP conducted in Philadelphia.

Begin with the podium. The GOP, with J.C. Watts front and center, presented an image of itself as a cheerfully diverse group. This was nothing especially new; Republican conventions past have tried to create similar impressions. Democratic partisans were quick this time as before to draw a contrast between the diversity at the podium and the whiteness of the crowd. Except that the people on the GOP podium weren’t exactly susceptible to the charge of tokenism. Mr. Watts is not merely the only black GOP member of Congress. He is also one of the top leaders of the congressional majority, and his communications shop has brought a new degree of sophistication to the GOP political operation. Condoleezza Rice is a key foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush. Colin Powell is Colin Powell, one of the most widely respected men in America. Democratic partisans could and did complain that the GOP podium looked like a gathering of Democrats. But wait. Why, from the Democrats’ point of view, was that bad?

Or consider Dick Cheney’s refrain: “It’s time for them to go.” Vice President Gore used that very line to good effect in 1992, and that is no doubt exactly why the Bush-Cheney campaign revived it. Not only because it was good, but also in order to steal it. The Bush team did so in the knowledge that Democratic activists would understand the terms in which they were being taunted, but that people hearing the speech would just hear a good applause line. The needle again.

Or consider the issues Mr. Bush has elevated: not just tax cuts, but Social Security, education, Medicare – all issues on which Democrats have traditionally maintained a huge advantage. In fact, in the bipartisan Voter.com Battleground Poll conducted in June, Mr. Bush led Mr. Gore in dealing with education and Social Security – and trailed him on “improving health care,” an issue that ordinarily favors Democrats overwhelmingly, by only 7 percentage points. Some Democrats have found it annoying beyond description that Mr. Bush is campaigning on “their” issues – and achieving some success to boot.

Finally, take a look at atmospherics pure and simple. Here, quoted in The Washington Post, is Gore media consultant Robert Shrum feeling the needle: “We’re going to have a serious convention, not a kind of ersatz variety show.” In response to the GOP video used to introduce Mr. Bush at the convention, Mr. Shrum vowed, “You’re not going to see Al Gore driving around in a pickup truck with a dog.”

Now, if your partisan antipathy toward George W. Bush and all his works extends to rejecting on principle his campaign’s model for a successful, united, disciplined convention, perhaps you have a little too much Bush on the brain. Similarly, if your first impulse on seeing Mr. Bush pet a dog is to send Mr. Gore out to shoot one, your opponent is getting to you.

I don’t see why Mr. Gore can’t run a serious campaign that engages Mr. Bush on the traditionally Democratic issues that seem to be at the top of people’s lists of concerns these days. In selecting Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Gore ratified the centrist Democratic Leadership Council’s dominion over the party at the presidential level and reached for the center of the electorate. That’s what he needed to do. The question is whether that message gets through or whether it gets stuck in the slough of irrelevant and counterproductive Bush hatred that some in his party seem stuck on.