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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2001 / 21 Kislev 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Post-Sept. 11 spirit of bipartisanship now officially dead -- FOUR senior Republicans are sending out a memo to GOP Congressional candidates this week warning them that Democrats are about to attack. Too late - the attack's already begun.

Former Reps. Vin Weber (Minn.) and Bill Paxon (N.Y.), former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour and former House leadership aide Ed Gillespie base their warning on another memo by senior Democrats advising that attacks on President Bush's economic policies are fair game, even if his war policies are off-limits.

The Democratic report, issued Nov. 13 by pollster Stan Greenberg and strategists James Carville and Bob Shrum and updated last week, described the post-Sept. 11 period as "a moment of opportunity" for Democrats.

"We agree," the Democrats wrote in mid-November, "that this is no time for partisan-sounding attacks" on Bush, but "Democrats should feel free to attack wrongheaded Republican Congressional initiatives, even separating the House Republicans from the President."

Using this as their text, the Republicans are warning, "Don't think that the prevailing sense of national unity will prevent Democrats from resorting to vicious attacks and scare tactics next November."

However, Democratic leaders have jumped the gun. Both Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) launched decidedly partisan-sounding assaults on Bush's economic policies last week.

Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, announced the DCCC ads would target "George Bush's recession."

And some other Democrats, led by those on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also have assailed Bush's anti-terrorism policies, notably his plan to bring foreign terrorists before military tribunals.

Polls indicate that the public overwhelmingly supports the President's rather limited infringements on civil liberties, suggesting that Democrats are taking political risks in attacking him on that score - assuming Republicans make an issue of the matter.

However, the economy, the budget and Bush's tax cuts always were likely to be the dominant issues of the 2002 elections. Now they are, more or less officially.

Last Thursday, after White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels forecast federal deficits for the next three fiscal years, Gephardt declared that Bush "is mismanaging the economy with the help of his Republican colleagues in the Senate and House."

And Daschle responded that Daniels' projections proved that "What we did in economic policy with the passage of [Bush's] tax cut was a disaster not only for the economy but for our ability to respond to the aftermath of the crisis of September 11."

The White House countered this criticism by saying that Democrats were getting back to "the way business has been done in Washington, finger pointing and blaming."

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer also pointed out that tax cuts accounted for only $40 billion of the $154 billion decline in this year's budget surplus, with the rest of the shrinkage resulting from economic contraction and the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Daniels noted that the economy began weakening in 2000, before Bush took office, then was given a further blow onSept. 11. "This is Osama bin Laden's recession," he said.

Democratic policy so far is following the playbook set out by Greenberg, Shrum and Carville - with one significant exception.

The three strategists argue in their memos that Democrats should go into the 2002 elections calling for "delaying the tax cuts passed earlier this year for the wealthiest 1 percent to protect the economy and the Social Security trust fund, as well as providing resources to meet immediate rebuilding and investment needs."

Thus far, Democratic Congressional leaders have not recommended repealing or "delaying" top rate cuts, but on Thursday the New Democrat Coalition did just that, proposing to use the $86 billion over 10 years to pay for expanded unemployment benefits and stimulative tax cuts.

According to one top Democratic House leadership aide, the likelihood is that Democrats will join in calling for the repeal of rate cuts for the rich, even though that is likely to lead to renewed GOP charges that Democrats represent the "tax-and-spend" party.

If Democrats are on the attack, so are Republicans. In fact, they were in fighting stance first, with conservative activists, The Wall Street Journal editorial page and White House aides trying to portray Daschle as the bogeyman blocking an economic-stimulus package.

In actuality, when Daschle arranged a top-level negotiating session to begin working out a package last Wednesday evening, including Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, it was blown up by a Republican, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (Calif.).

And the next day, Thomas went after both Daschle and Gephardt in hotly personal terms, charging that Gephardt "can't stand not being the center of attention" and implying that Daschle was stupid.

So that's where we are less than three months after death and grief brought Washington politicians together - "shoulder to shoulder," as they used to say. The spirit of Sept. 11 was bound to pass. It's sad we're back to normal so soon.

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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