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Jewish World Review April 22, 2002 / 11 Iyar, 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Dems offer few ideas at rally | Like a Death Star in a "Star Wars" movie, President Bush's once-impenetrable protective energy shield seems to be losing power. So Democrats have begun to attack, but they're far from scoring a direct hit.

Bush's approval ratings are slipping slightly, and he's looking less than invincible in foreign policy, so a bevy of would-be 2004 challengers fired one fusillade after another at him at the Florida Democratic Convention.

The immediate audience loved it, but Republicans are pretty convinced that all the fireworks made little impact on swing voters, though it may have helped begin rousing the Democratic base to turn out in November.

What was striking about the Democratic contenders' speeches was the near-total absence of a positive agenda or any new proposal for solving any national problem.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) made a point of saying, "Now, we Democrats have a responsibility to do more than say what we're against. We have to say what we're for. We have to offer a sensible economic plan that expands opportunity for all Americans."

But he didn't offer one and neither did former Vice President Al Gore or Sens. John Edwards (N.C.), John Kerry (Mass.) or Chris Dodd (Conn.).

The closest anyone came to a new idea was Edwards, with a small suggestion that the federal government fund efforts by local schools to make community service a graduation requirement for students.

With Kerry taking the lead, the candidates did mention such needed goals as paying down the national debt, lowering class size in schools, putting more police on the streets, covering the uninsured and giving a prescription drug benefit to all seniors.

It is all familiar and worthy, but the wish list is costly and no one set any priorities or explained how to pay for it. Among the prospective 2004 contenders, only Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has advocated scaling back Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut to finance the programs he and the others advocate.

It may be unfair to expect wonky policy discussion at a political rally like the one Florida put on. It was intended as a competition in red meat-slinging -- and that is what it was. The candidates were all careful to preface their remarks by saying that they stand "shoulder-to-shoulder" with Bush on fighting the war on terrorism and backing U.S. troops in the field.

They defended what came after by declaring that, as Gore put it, "patriotism doesn't mean keeping quiet."

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe went further, charging that Bush and other Republicans "have tried to use the war as a partisan political prop, claiming that we need to elect more Republicans in order to defeat the forces of terror."

Indeed, Bush has forfeited the political protection of an above-it-all wartime president by campaigning for GOP candidates and indicating that he could fight terror better with a GOP-controlled Congress.

But a decline in Bush's popularity ratings, a lull in the war on terror and Bush's evident failure to bring about a cease-fire in the Middle East also open him to criticism.

Bush's approval ratings have fallen from the high 80s to the low 70s, and the polling coordinator for the Republican National Committee, Matthew Dowd, expects them to dip to 60 percent or below by November.

Kerry, Lieberman and Edwards took shots at Bush's foreign policy, criticizing his late engagement in Mideast diplomacy, his failure to be consistent about terror in Afghanistan and Israel, and his unwillingness to beef up allied peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan.

The main thrust of the Democratic attack, however, was domestic, especially against the dramatic decline in the federal-budget surplus, Bush's tax cuts and his budget priorities. Kerry declared of the Bush administration, "Not only are they racing back to the voodoo economics of the 1980s, now they want to take money from Social Security and Medicare and give it to the wealthiest Americans."

In one of the best attack lines at the convention, Kerry went on to say, "We're not going to let George W. Bush do to Social Security what Arthur Andersen and the administration's friends did to Enron."

Even though Bush has tried to paint himself as a "compassionate conservative," Gore accused him of pursuing "a right-wing agenda" and declared "every time ... the little guy loses with this crowd."

By all accounts, Gore helped himself the most in Florida, recovering from the embarrassment of losing the 2000 election.

But Republicans don't think the Democrats made much headway for 2002. Dowd said they came off as negative at a time when the public wants positive proposals. He said Bush's popularity serves as a "break wall" against what otherwise would be an off-year Democratic tide. "We're at parity and that's good," he said.

A recent Democracy Corps poll indicated that Democrats have pulled ahead by 7 points in the generic Congressional ballot, but Republicans say their polling puts them 3 points up.

"The mid-term is all about turnout," says Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledging that attacks on Bush by Democratic candidates might help stir activism in the party's base.

The Florida performance seems to show that the Democratic Party is alive and fighting even if it has yet to say exactly what it's fighting for.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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