Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2001 / 11 Teves, 5762
Dems on Defense: How Republicans won the PR battle over the stimulus package
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER Tom Daschle never had it so good. For weeks, the White House made concession after concession on an economic stimulus package and Daschle pocketed them without making concessions of his own. In the House, Republicans passed a stimulus bill that Democrats ridiculed and even some Republicans regarded as an embarrassment. President Bush and Republicans were on defense, Daschle and Democrats on offense. But the week before Christmas, the tables turned. Suddenly Daschle looked and sounded like a man on the defensive. He--not the White House or congressional Republicans--got the lion's share of the blame for not enacting a stimulus bill that lacked much stimulative potential but was popular with the public nonetheless.
How did Republicans pull this off, especially against Daschle, as smooth, clever, and likable an operator as Washington has seen in years? They did so by engaging President Bush publicly in partisan battle, exactly what he'd shied away from since September 11. And they rallied the entire GOP apparatus in Washington to serve as a Greek chorus, chanting monotonously that Daschle is an obstructionist, who is blocking legislation for crude partisan reasons.
First, however, Republicans on Capitol Hill had to come to grips with a new fact of life in post-September 11 America: They're a lot more popular than Democrats. It's not just Bush. After the terrorist attacks, Republicans as a party pulled even or slightly ahead of Democrats in the generic congressional ballot. Now they have a lead outside the margin of error. It's five points in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey, eleven points in the Fox News Dynamics poll. Despite the recession, Bush's handling of the economy is supported by two-thirds of Americans, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll. Which party's approach to economic problems is preferable? Republicans top Democrats 44 percent to 35 percent. So Bush and Republicans started from a strong position.
Still, the anti-Daschle mantra didn't work initially. "It takes time," a Republican aide said. The press, which adores Daschle, refused to take the accusation seriously, though House-passed measures were piling up on Daschle's desk. Instead, reporters referred to the GOP attacks as "demonization" of Daschle. Normally such strong hostility in the media would have prompted Republicans to desist. But this time, they stuck with the anti-Daschle theme, partly because of White House encouragement.
Bush's personal role was crucial. The White House strategy was to gradually step up criticism of Democrats. In early December, Bush called on Democratic leaders to act on a stimulus package. In his radio address on December 8, he cited Senate leadership for failing to enact a stimulus package. The next day on "Meet the Press," Vice President Dick Cheney singled out Daschle as the obstructionist who had bottled up a stimulus. Daschle was unmoved. He insisted on more Republican concessions.
It was Bush's next maneuver that put Daschle on the defensive. The president traveled to Capitol Hill on December 19 ostensibly to address the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate and the GOP conference in the Senate. But the important session was a public gathering with three Senate Democrats--John Breaux of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Zell Miller of Georgia. Bush had been talking to all three, and especially Breaux, for weeks about a stimulus. They wanted a bill to pass and disliked the two partisan alternatives. They agreed with the president on a compromise stimulus bill that cut the middle class income-tax rate from 27 percent to 25 percent and provided a tax credit for health care for the jobless.
The agreement was significant for a tactical reason: It showed the Bush-backed measure had a majority of at least 52 votes in the Senate. When the House replaced its earlier bill with the new Bush-Breaux measure, the majority became Congress-wide. "I look forward to working with both bodies, in any way I can, to convince those who are reluctant to get a bill done that this makes sense for America, so we can leave for Christmas knowing full-well that we've done the people's business," Bush declared. Republican Leader Trent Lott tried to bring up the stimulus on the Senate floor the next day, but Daschle blocked it.
On defense, Daschle made his case at numerous forums. He said a supermajority of 60 votes would be required to pass a stimulus bill. Of course, this was true only because Democrats would filibuster or make procedural objections (as Daschle himself did). The Bush bill, he said, would increase the deficit and boost interest rates but not help the economy much. Daschle insisted Republicans wouldn't negotiate on unemployment benefits and health care. Actually, Bush and Republicans had already caved on both. But the Bush bill would deliver health care subsidies the wrong way, Daschle said. This was green-eyeshade stuff. At a breakfast with journalists, he repeatedly listed everything the Senate did pass in 2001, as if to say, "I am not an obstructionist."
One constituency was highly satisfied with Daschle's performance. That was most Senate Democrats. He carried out their wishes in deep-sixing the stimulus bill, though he left open the possibility of raising it again in early 2002. "It may be dormant for now, but it's not dead for good." Maybe not, but Daschle will have to compromise if a stimulus bill is going to be revived. Bush didn't seem terribly interested. He said he has no intention of calling a special session of Congress to enact a stimulus.
Daschle, tough and resourceful, will live to fight another day. And the White House has just the issue to fight over--terrorism insurance. Daschle blew up a bipartisan agreement that would have provided federal backing for terrorism insurance because it barred punitive damages and limited attorney' fees, thus alienating the trial lawyers' lobby. Without a government backstop, insurance companies say they won't offer such insurance after December 31. This could lead to the cancellation of real estate developments, new buildings, and other projects. If it does, Daschle will once more face the wrath of
Fred Barnes is Executive editor at the Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.
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