Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 2002 / 30 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Steve and Cokie Roberts

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The best the Dems can do | The eulogies of Paul Wellstone, from friend and foe alike, hailed him as a man of principle, a person ready to fight for what he saw as right, whether or not it was popular.

But when he was alive, some of the same politicians who celebrated Wellstone's courage had ridiculed him as an extremist, an ineffectual liberal who often found himself joined by only a handful of senators on any issue. And, judging by their campaign messages, the politicians still in the struggle feel more threatened by the criticism of the living Wellstone than heartened by the posthumous praise.

Sit and look at the ads for Democrats for Congress in competitive districts and you won't know by what you see that they belong to a political party. Some of the spots actually start with pictures of George Bush, with the candidates counting the ways they supported the president. Watching one Democratic candidate after another walking through the woods wearing camouflage, toting a gun and touting conservative values is downright funny. But they're smart to do it. Most of the up-for-grabs House districts and the several tight Senate races are in states where imitating Paul Wellstone would mean political suicide.

Given the president's continued high approval ratings, Democratic candidates concluded it was the better part of wisdom to steer clear of him, refusing to criticize Bush not only on the war but also on the economy, preferring instead to stick to the tried-and-true themes of protecting Social Security and promoting health care. Those issues have worked for the party in election after election. And, like Charlie Brown trusting Lucy to hold the football, the Republicans have somehow managed to be blindsided in election after election.

This year they finally caught on. With a lot of help from Democrats, who sent signals months ago that they would go after their opponents for trying to "privatize" Social Security, the Republicans spent money to conduct focus groups so they could find a way to answer the charge. They taught their candidates to fight the word "privatize," arguing with the press that use of the word meant taking sides in the debate. They repeatedly insist that the president doesn't have a plan for Social Security, he only has a commission. Republicans know they can never win on Social Security, but they hope to neutralize the issue, the way they think they have muted Democratic calls for prescription drug coverage under Medicare and a patient's bill of rights by passing their own plans on those subjects. On corporate responsibility, Republicans decided it was better to switch than fight. Seeing their opponents salivate over Wall Street greed as a gift for the campaign trail, the Republicans accepted the Democratic bill to impose new limits on business.

So where does that leave the Democrats? Praying that their opponents have done or said something stupid, providing fodder for attack. And, in the final days of the campaign, running national party ads warning voters against Republicans controlling all of government.

Calling for divided government is a somewhat subtle but probably effective tactic. Republican candidates used it in the waning days of 1996 when it was obvious that Bill Clinton would be overwhelmingly re-elected. And in exit polls that year, voters confirmed that one of their goals in voting Republican was to rein in the president.

In pre-election polls this year a slight majority of voters have said they would prefer to elect Democrats to Congress to counterbalance the president's program rather than Republicans to support it. That theoretical question is hard to translate into actual campaigns for the House, where people know and like their members, though there are a couple of races where it seems to be making a difference. But Democrats hope that impulse toward balance will put their party in charge of the Senate.

In fact, it does make a difference to have the opposition party control the Senate. It means Democrats are in a position to shape legislation, or to stop it. And they have a say over judicial appointments. An electorate that's evenly split between the parties sees that moderating influence as a plus.

"Elect us to check the Republicans" is not exactly the kind of populist platform that Paul Wellstone would have liked to see his party stand on. It's not a slogan that brings forth praise for sticking by principle. But it's the best Democrats can do in 2002, and they are counting on it to keep them in control of one House of Congress.

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© 2002, NEA