The Washington Times

Democrats have been taking a lot of heat from “friendly” critics for the supposed ineffectiveness of the opposition they are mounting to the Bush administration and the (narrowly) GOP-controlled Congress. This is fair in some areas but unfair in others, and the combination is illuminating.

Let us start with the tax cut legislation that is expected to pass this week, with significant Democratic support. This is, indeed, an excellent example of the inability to maintain a united front.

Compare the current debate with the state of play in 1993, with the Clinton administration newly installed and the Congress in the hands of Democrats. Mr. Clinton proposed a deficit reduction package that called for a substantial increase in the top tax rate on individual income, as well as other tax increases. On the spending side, the administration touted the restraints it was supposedly putting in place on spending, though a close look at the balance sheets revealed a budget in which a dramatic post-Cold War decrease in defense spending masked significant increases in domestic discretionary spending. Mr. Clinton also sought a short-term “stimulus package” of spending directed at boosting a sluggish economy (which was, however, already in recovery following the short-lived 1990-91 recession).

In this case, Republicans mounted an effective opposition. The House Budget Committee minority produced a substitute budget that, through spending cuts, equaled the president’s budget in deficit reduction, but without the tax increases. Republicans were able to rally around the proposal, thereby establishing the main political point they wanted to make: They wouldn’t raise taxes, Democrats would. This allowed them to redeem the anti-tax message that had long been one of the party’s principal political strengths || and which in 1990 President Bush had muddied by breaking his “no new taxes” pledge in pursuit of a budget deal. Republicans in 1993 also attacked the “stimulus package” as wasteful spending. At the end of the day, Mr. Clinton didn’t get his stimulus package, and his budget passed with no GOP support in either the Senate or the House.

In 2001, by contrast, the Bush administration has been able to peel off significant numbers of Democrats. The most important has been a group of centrist Democratic senators led by John Breaux. But in the House, too, Democrats have joined Republicans in voting for a number of tax-cutting measures.

There is no single Democratic message here. And, I think, this in turn reflects the fundamental intraparty divisions of Democrats today. The party has no settled answer on economic matters, just warring camps. Most are against tax cuts for those with the highest incomes, but some are prepared to live with such cuts. Some are against tax cuts in general, others support the targeted type. Some think fiscal discipline really does mean paying off the debt, others want the surplus revenue to fund more programs (though the latter rarely make the argument in those terms).

There is nothing comparable here, in short, to that Budget Committee document produced by John Kasich in 1993 and “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office as delivering what it promised. That substitute budget was not just political theater and symbolism; it really did represent the GOP reconciling its internal differences, thereby enabling the party to stand together.

But contrast Democratic disunity over economic policy with the remarkable Democratic togetherness on what we might call “social issues,” specifically as manifest in the jurisprudential approach of judicial nominees. Here, Democrats have been highly effective in getting their message out: No “extreme” judges. The fight over John Ashcroft’s nomination as attorney general and Theodore Olson’s nomination as solicitor general are an indication of things to come. Although there is very little chance of actually defeating an executive branch nominee, on account of the (thankfully, still present) deference at least some opposition-party senators pay to the notion that the president should have the people he wants, Democrats went after Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Olson with a cold fury. This was clearly a warmup for the coming battle over the judiciary, where lifetime tenure reduces senatorial deference to a minimum.

Democrats are effective here because they are together here. And once again, there is a parallel contrast to the GOP. During the Clinton years, the Republican majorities in Congress were consistently tripping over themselves on social issues || riders related to abortion, for example. Within their own ranks, there was too much support for a strategy of confrontation with the Democratic administration over these issues to ignore. But there was not enough support to win, especially given (note again) united Democratic opposition.

It would be a mistake to take Republican hesitancy on social issues as an indication of disarray that extends throughout the policy spectrum, specifically, to fiscal policy. It would be a similar mistake to take Democratic disunity over economic policy as an indication of a general inability to be effective in opposition. You have to look at the specifics.