The Washington Times

Democrats have done a pretty effective job on the attack against George W. Bush over the past month. They have a decline in the president’s job-approval ratings to show for their labors. But then again, the president has not much been heard from since the pre-Christmas period, when Trent Lott’s slow fall dominated the political news. Tonight is really the night the emperor strikes back.

Mr. Bush had a dazzling autumn, beginning with his speech to the United Nations on Iraq in September, extending to the GOP midterm elections victory, for which he received the lion’s share of the credit, and culminating on perhaps Nov. 8 in the unanimous passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, warning Iraq that it faces “serious consequences” if it does not take advantage of “a final opportunity” to disarm.

But, in truth, Mr. Bush had the field more or less to himself. Before the elections, Democrats were suffering from an acute play-it-safe paralysis that probably makes more sense when you are trying to protect a substantial majority position than it does when you are trying to hold onto the barest of majorities or win one back. [It’s astonishing how early the House became a lost cause for Democrats in 2002.] When they came up losers on Election Day, the party immediately turned inward in search of an explanation.

They came to the conclusion relatively quickly that the problem was timidity, an unwillingness to confront Mr. Bush across the board, including on national-security issues. Those Democrats in favor of war with Iraq receded in visibility and opponents became more prominent. Democrats emerged more united than previously in opposition to Mr. Bush’s economic proposals. And the serious contention for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination got under way, accordingly handing the party as a whole a bigger megaphone for its attacks on Mr. Bush.

Then came the protracted Lott meltdown. The effects were twofold: First, Democrats, in the immediate aftermath of the elections, distressed and feeling marginalized, experienced a renewal of self-confidence: Whatever their own failings, the sins of the GOP on race were greater and more elemental, and – more to the point – the public would indeed hold Republicans accountable. Second, Republicans found themselves turning inward to deal with the Lott problem. And while the vast anti-Lott wing of the party, including the Bush White House, felt a certain sense of righteousness on the attack against the senator, nevertheless, this internal preoccupation constituted a sharp break in the momentum issuing from the November elections.

Democrats sharpened the attack. The major White House legislative initiative, the tax-cut proposal, drew sustained and united Democratic opposition. It strikes me as unlikely that, when the matter comes to a vote, Democrats will sustain their opposition to Mr. Bush’s plan with the unanimity with which Republicans opposed the Clinton tax increases of 1993. But at least at the outset, there were no indications of a willingness to go along with Mr. Bush among the group of a dozen or so Democratic senators who supported his 2001 tax cut. Mr. Bush has never had to face a united opposition party. He has hitherto been in a position to exploit Democrats’ divisions.

Democrats are now looking at Mr. Bush’s declining job-approval ratings, as well as the specifics underlying the decline – a reduction in support for his handling of the economy and also of foreign affairs – and seeing vulnerability. They think they have caught him in his own contradictions and hubris. His ability to wrap himself in the mantle of national security while he pursues a partisan domestic agenda is coming undone, and so say the polls.

Before we reach this conclusion, though, I think there’s another party we need to hear from – Mr. Bush himself. The White House, which is to say the person of the president, has actually been lying rather low since the holiday season. Even the unveiling of Mr. Bush’s economic program was characterized more by the behind-the-scenes story of Mr. Bush’s decision to go for broke [if I may] on the elimination of the double taxation of dividends than anything Mr. Bush did in public.

Democrats may be delighted with the newfound ability to flummox Mr. Bush. But before they get too delighted, they had better wait until they hear from him. The State of the Union message actually constitutes his return to center stage after a Christmas-to-Super-Bowl hiatus. He has not yet begun to try to sell his economic plan. And clearly he is not finished with his public diplomacy on the need to disarm Saddam.

If, following the State of the Union and Mr. Bush’s generally increased visibility in the late winter, post-holiday season, his poll numbers continue to weaken – and recall that despite the current weakening, they remain pretty good – Democrats will be right to think they are on to something. At present, though, there is little reason to think we are seeing anything other than the usual ebb and flow of politics.