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Jewish World Review Jan. 2, 2002 / 18 Teves, 5762

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Domestic squabbling --
COOPERATION on the war against terrorism, confrontation on economic and domestic issues: This has been the strategy this fall of the man who more than anyone else positions the Democratic Party on issues, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. It is also the strategy recommended in a widely circulated November 13 memo from Democratic strategist James Carville and pollster Stanley Greenberg. It has the additional advantage of representing the sincere views of most Democratic politicians: They support George W. Bush on the war and disagree with him, as they did before September 11, on many domestic issues.

Will it work? Initial signs are not entirely encouraging. For weeks Daschle used his power to schedule Senate business to block consideration of measures that he feared would pass on the floor-the economic stimulus and energy bills, trade promotion authority for the president. He supported Senate appropriators in adding to the defense appropriation more than the $20 billion agreed on by the White House for domestic recovery. He has blocked the majority-supported nominations of Labor Department appointee Eugene Scalia and State Department appointee Otto Reich.

But when the Bush White House has put the public spotlight on an issue, Daschle has backed down. The appropriators backed down December 6 when Bush threatened a veto. And when Vice President Dick Cheney accused Daschle of "obstructionism" on December 9-a signal Bush might do the same-and after Republicans made some concessions, Daschle started negotiating in earnest on the stimulus package.

Helping the Dems. Daschle has been forthright on his priorities for 2002. His No. 1 priority is re-electing his South Dakota colleague, Tim Johnson, who won 51 percent to 49 percent in 1996 and has been running no better than even in polls against Rep. John Thune (who was persuaded to make the race by the Bush White House). He wants to help re-elect Democratic senators with serious opposition in nearby Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. He wants to increase the Democratic majority in the Senate and help Democrats win a majority in the House.

Some Democrats believe-and some Republicans fear-that Democrats can win through confrontation on economic issues. But a poll taken December 2-4 for Carville and Greenberg tends to undercut their earlier memo. True, it does show Democrats ahead when voters are presented with Greenberg's version of party stands on tax cuts and Social Security-results much like those in 2000. But it also shows Republican candidates ahead of Democrats in House races by 44 to 43 percent (Republicans trailed on such questions during most of the 2000 cycle and won anyway), and Republicans doing as well as or better on the economy, taxes, the budget, and even (an issue Democrats thought would work for them) airline security. And it shows voters slightly more likely to blame Democrats if no fiscal stimulus package is enacted by Christmas-a result that Daschle surely noticed. His backdowns on the defense appropriation and the stimulus package suggest that, in the crunch, he is not confident that confrontation with a president with an 80-plus percent positive job rating will win votes for his party.

There have been no signs yet of significant change in the even partisan balance that prevailed in 2000, and in House races in 1998 and 1996 as well. George W. Bush's high job approval does not carry over to other Republicans but does give Democrats reason to be wary of confrontations with him. Since September 11, feeling has been more positive for incumbents of both parties, which marginally helps Republicans since they have slightly more incumbents running in both Senate and House races.

Nor is the recession as big a factor as it was when most voters could remember how, in the 1930s, one year of economic downturn led to economic disaster. Even in 1982, when Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost 26 House seats in a much deeper recession than we have yet, 15 of those losses (by my admittedly subjective estimate) were due to redistricting, not recession. In 2002, Republicans are likely to have a net advantage of five to 10 seats because of redistricting, which means they are likely to keep the House if they lose 11 seats because of recession. So far, at least, Daschle's attempt to win over voters through confrontation on economics hasn't worked, and control of Congress in 2002, as in 2000, will depend on the results of a few close races.

Michael Baone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2001, Michael Barone