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Rothenberg Reflects On the Winter Of Their Discontent

I guess nothing much happened over the last week or so while I was out of town on vacation, huh?

Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) took steps to get into the Democratic presidential race. Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.) got in too, except that he didn’t. And Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who announced that he probably would run for the Democratic nomination after former Vice President Al Gore ruled out another run for the White House, set a date to announce his announcement that he would get into the race.

[IMGCAP(1)] President Bush released his economic plan, and the House Democrats released one of their own. Shockingly, the Democrats accused the White House of proposing an economic plan that favors the rich, while Republicans accused Democrats of engaging in class warfare. Have I seen this movie before? Like 100 times, maybe?

Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who often votes like a Republican, announced that he won’t seek re-election. That’s bad news for Democrats (since they could lose the seat) and possibly bad news for Republicans (since Democrats could possibly hold the seat with a Democrat who actually believes what most Democrats do).

The Republicans picked Tampa, I mean New Orleans — sorry, make that New York — as the site for the party’s 2004 national convention. Their convention will fall just a few weeks before the third anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City. Not that the attacks had anything to do with the selection, of course.

Bush, allegedly needing to show his sensitivity toward civil rights and the concerns of African-Americans, decided to renominate Judge Charles Pickering, a lightning rod for Democrats and liberals, to a spot on a federal appeals court. So much for all that commentary that Pickering was certain to be the first casualty of post-Trent Lott (Miss.) Republicanism.

[IMGCAP(2)] And, most importantly, inept refereeing by a team of officials who should never, ever be allowed to work another professional sporting event of any kind denied the New York Giants a second chance at a field goal that could have resulted in the team advancing in the NFL playoffs.

But I’m back now, and that should guarantee that things will quiet down.

So where does Bush stand as 2003 begins? It’s pretty clear that much of the Republican ebullience following the election was unwarranted, and that the president still faces extremely daunting challenges around the world, across the nation and on Capitol Hill. The next two years look like rough sledding for him.

The foreign policy climate appears messier every day. Venezuela has become a basket case, and the new regime in Brazil isn’t exactly comforting. North Korea’s nuclear program (including its apparent willingness to export its nuclear know-how) seems every bit as dangerous as Iraq’s, and the administration is going to need to be more persuasive as it sells its foreign policy to the public.

And, of course, the terrorist threat — both around the world and in this country — hasn’t abated.

The economic picture isn’t as bad, but it’s not good either. Consumer credit dipped unexpectedly in November, raising the possibility of weaker consumer spending, which could have a serious impact on the economy. Concern over the economy helps Bush make his case for new and accelerated tax cuts, but the White House proposal also gives Democrats a new target to shoot at.

Tax-cutting conservatives who figured that the better-than-expected Republican showing in November would give Bush plenty of leeway with his economic agenda should start rethinking that assumption. The president’s clout on Capitol Hill at any given time is likely to depend on his own overall job approval numbers, not on the results of the 2002 elections.

Sure, the White House probably can pick off a Senate Democrat or two to support a Republican tax-cut package, but at least a couple of moderate GOP Senators (Arizona’s John McCain and Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee) are already grumbling about the White House proposal. With Republicans a long way from 60 votes in the Senate, the president better be in a compromising mood if he wants to get a tax-cutting package through Congress quickly.

There is simply no political reason for Democrats to give Bush any victories or to compromise with Republicans on controversial matters over the next two years. Daschle’s first job as Minority Leader is to score political points for his party, so it will be up to Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) to enact the GOP agenda and to take steps to confirm White House nominees.