The Washington Times

Ordinarily, when you start running out the clock on offense and playing a “prevent” defense, you’re ahead. Democrats’ innovation in wartime Washington seems to be to adopt these tactics while behind.

They face, all in all, a mess of a political problem. Here are what I take to be its major components:

* George W. Bush, wildly popular wartime leader. In the absence of the September 11 attack, Democrats would probably have every reason to expect a kind midterm election and reasonable positioning heading into 2004. The shakiness of Mr. Bush’s path to the White House could have been counted on to galvanize the party faithful, while Republicans (in the absence of war) would be divided over everything about the Bush agenda that was not a tax cut. Mr. Bush was always a better politician than his opponents gave him credit for being, but without the war, he might well be the one in a pickle now.

* Receding Democratic issues, GOP encroachment on Democratic strengths. Republicans always get the high marks on national security, defense and foreign policy issues. This only becomes a problem for Democrats when these issues have a high degree of salience with voters, which for a good long while they didn’t but now emphatically do. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has worked hard to earn Republicans new affection from voters on a couple of traditionally Democratic issues, most notably education. Finally, the wartime popularity has spilled over to other policy areas, such as the high approval Mr. Bush gets for handling the economy, notwithstanding a downturn (for which presidents can usually expect to get blamed).

* Red, white and blue, not red vs. blue. Democrats did an effective job of personifying Republicans as an amalgamation of Kenneth Starr, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay. The idea was to portray Mr. Bush as the latest incarnation. This figure might indeed be popular in the red Bush states on the Bush-Gore electoral map; he is one of altogether limited appeal in the blue states. But this figure, while he is still an element within the Republican Party, is no longer the face of the party. Think of the wartime president, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. It is quite respectable to be a Republican in the Northeast again. Democrats did very well in sticking the entire Republican Party with the elements of its congressional brand that don’t travel well, but with the White House (and the war), Republicans have had a chance to put another face on the party. When the time comes for hawkishness, large defense budget increases and conspicuous displays of patriotism, they are in their element.

* The Democrats’ divide. The split between the centrist New Democrats and the more progressive elements of the party is an old story. The new twist is the closeness of control in the Senate and the House. While most of the party hates Mr. Bush’s tax cut, the fact is that 12 Democratic senators, many up for re-election in 2002, voted for it. How do you mount an attack on the tax cut without alienating them? Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has a vexing political problem – dealing with a caucus that thinks about three-quarters one way and one-quarter another, but in which a rupture with even a tiny number of the one-quarter risks the majority itself. Democrats have noted that given the GOP bully pulpit in the White House, especially in wartime, it is difficult for them to get a word in edgewise. That’s true, but the phenomenon is masking the underlying problem: There is no clear path to reconciling the competing party agendas and arriving at a consistent message.

* The Daschle dilemma. Tom Daschle is the chief Democrat, and will remain so at least through the 2002 election. That makes him the point man for advancing his party’s agenda. His problem is that Republicans know this. And they are feeling bold enough these days such that every time he surfaces on the attack, they are going to let him have it. This phenomenon was on display when the stimulus bill stalled, when Mr. Daschle tried to mount an offensive against the Bush tax cut and when Mr. Daschle made comments (actually quite mild) raising questions about the prospects for the war effort. For an example of how effective a concerted effort to drive up a politician’s “negatives” can be, consider the Clinton-Morris advertising campaign against Mr. Gingrich in 1995-1996. If Mr. Daschle could count on strongly voiced support from within his own party when he steps up, it might diminish the risk to him personally. But so far, he hasn’t had that kind of support.

Under the circumstances, then, the urge to run out the clock makes a certain sense. For Democrats, this game stinks, and doing anything at all both A) is very difficult; and B) may make matters worse. Not doing anything, on the other hand, has risks of its own, and essentially makes the hope that conditions will improve the sum and substance of the party’s political strategy.