The Washington Times

Last week in this space, I explained what I take to be the sources of the current Democratic Party predicament. For starters, there’s the wartime popularity of George W. Bush and its spillover on Republicans in general. Next there’s the change in the “issue environment,” the things voters say are most important to them, away from such domestic issues as health care and the environment and in the direction of national security, where the GOP does well; in addition, the GOP has made inroads in a couple of areas of Democratic strength, especially education. Third, the GOP “brand” with voters is no longer that of the congressional firebrands Democrats so effectively used as a foil. Fourth, there is no clear path to a mutually satisfactory compromise in the longstanding Democratic divide between centrist “New Democrats” and the party’s progressive wing. Finally, Republicans have effectively targeted Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who is also not getting the stand-up support he needs from within his party to be truly effective as opposition leader.

The net effect, going into the 2002 elections at least, is a manifestly defensive political strategy. This is odd in that Democrats are not currently ahead. It’s rationalized in a number of ways. One is the proposition that all politics is local, and that Democratic candidates “out there” will best know what appeals to voters in their states or districts. Given the difficulty of getting out a coherent national message and given that Democrats running in the South, whose fortunes are critical to the prospect of their party’s regaining control, don’t think they can run successfully on a message reflecting the party’s dominant liberalism, it’s better to avoid creating problems.

Another is the nostrum: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. It may not get you out, but you won’t get in any deeper. Perhaps you’ll figure something out by-and-by, or perhaps your opponent will stumble.

In any case, Democrats are in a position of hoping the environment improves for them. This is, in principle, passive. On the other hand, politics is ebb and flow. And it might not be irrational for Democrats to take some time now to think about what to do when things begin breaking in their direction again.

The Bush administration is hardly invincible. And already there are some cracks even in the wartime facade.

The strongest asset Mr. Bush has going for him is the moral clarity he has brought to his description of the war effort. When he speaks, he talks in terms of high principle. This tendency extends well beyond war-related matters. It is the characteristic idiom of the Bush White House.

But this is an asset only insofar as administration action comports with the rhetoric. To the extent that conflicts emerge between the rhetoric and the action, the administration’s credibility will suffer, causing the White House to look cynical and overly political. This constitutes an opportunity for the opposition.

The most conspicuous instance of this was the administration’s patently protectionist decision last month to impose tariffs on steel imports. The administration’s rhetoric has been all about free trade. When the crunch came for an industry whose mills are concentrated in states Mr. Bush wants to win in 2004, he chose to sacrifice the principle. If, indeed, the political fortunes of the administration have already reached their wartime high-water mark, the question now being whether they will decline slightly and stabilize or continue to slide, the March 5 tariff decision probably marks the divide.

Nor is it clear that Mr. Bush will get a free pass on everything war-related. Already, the back-and-forth over Israel and the Palestinian Authority has taken something of a toll. The rhetoric Mr. Bush has deployed against terrorism in general sits uneasily with criticism of Israel’s military response to suicide bombings. Mr. Bush’s policy seems to be based to some degree on the proposition that ambiguity has its utility: Secretary of State Colin Powell was firmly dispatched – and got there a week later, as if by steamship. Ambiguity may or may not make sense. But it does create a gap with the high rhetoric.

Mr. Bush is riding high. And his White House is politically sophisticated. But there are instances in which political sophistication itself can get you in trouble. If Mr. Bush needs steel tariffs to win in West Virginia in 2004, given where he is now, he must be anticipating quite a slide.

Democrats don’t have a lot to work with at the moment. But if there is an Achilles’ heel to this administration, it’s the potential for a widening gap between the pronouncement and the actuality.