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By Harping on Ethics, Judges, Democrats Miss What Matters to America

Rep. Barney Frank’s pontificating on “Meet the Press” Sunday about the “corruption of the public policy process” under Republican leadership was a little tough to swallow with my morning coffee. Among the Massachusetts Democrat’s most disingenuous examples, he cited the Terry Schiavo legislation and Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) role in pushing it as evidence of the supposed “corruption” now infecting the U.S. House. [IMGCAP(1)]

Apparently, through Frank’s moral prism, voting to give the Schiavo family legal rights in federal court, in what was an admittedly emotional and difficult situation, qualifies as little more than what he terms the “corruption” of the public policy process. What didn’t come up in Frank’s Sunday morning sermon, of course, was the little matter of the 47 House Democrats who also voted for the Schiavo legislation, or the fact that not a single Democrat objected in the Senate where it passed by voice vote.

Anyone who had any doubts as to the real impetus behind Frank’s attack need look no further than his own words. Asserting that “Democrats think they can make DeLay an issue that costs Republican seats in the next year’s elections,” USA Today quoted Frank as saying, “Democrats have gone from being frustrated that people weren’t paying enough attention to DeLay to being afraid he’s going to be thrown out too soon.”

Frank isn’t alone in his partisan cynicism. On Saturday, Howard Dean emerged from his self-imposed rhetorical sabbatical to brazenly tell a gay rights group breakfast: “We’re going to use Terri Schiavo” in 2006 and 2008. It seems Barney Frank couldn’t wait.

So, why the Democratic focus on the Schiavo case and a raft of other lesser issues? The answer is to keep media attention away from the top issues in the country, which don’t include Tom DeLay, judges, “corruption,” or alleged Republican “intrusiveness” into people’s lives. They do include the economy and jobs, and in the past few months the increasingly important issue of energy — areas in which Democrats have little to say.

Frank and his colleagues don’t want to talk about the economy for the simple reason that the economy is on the right track. After a major economic recession, the collapse of the dot-com sector, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the corporate corruption scandals, the economy has rebounded.

March’s 5.2 percent unemployment ties the lowest number since October 2001, and the Bush administration can now claim almost 3 million new jobs created in the past 22 months. Tough numbers for Democrats to criticize today, but the truth is the economy was not a winning issue for Democrats even before last year’s election. Ultimately, on the issue of the economy, post-election polling showed that President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by 3 points, 40 percent to 37 percent.

Clearly, the jobs picture is improving, but a new element has entered the political stage — rising energy prices.

This week, Bush, in a smart move, used his radio address to tackle this tough issue, and the White House and Congress are expected to focus on it in the next few weeks. There is no question that rising gas prices have had an unsettling effect on the electorate.

Americans see the job creation numbers as a positive sign that the economy is moving forward; but as gas prices eat into disposable income, voters understand inherently that rising energy prices have the potential to negatively impact the economy and jobs. That explains some of the negative poll numbers we’re seeing, especially right track/wrong track questions.

One might expect that as prices have risen at the pump, Democrats would be talking more about the cost of a fill-up rather than judicial filibusters, but they’re not. They have a problem that explains Frank’s Sunday morning choice of topics.

Republicans have always viewed energy as an economic issue, while Democrats have seen it as an environmental issue. Now, it has also become a national security issue; and in today’s political environment, that’s a negative for Democrats because it cross pressures some of their key base groups.

Democrats are faced with a difficult dilemma that goes something like this.

If they delay or filibuster Republican attempts to pass an energy bill that would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and help lower gas prices, they risk being seen by moderate and conservative voters as putting politics ahead of the economic well-being and homeland security of millions of American families.

If they go along with Republican efforts and, particularly, if they allow oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, liberal environmentalists, a crucial part of their base, will be up in arms. For most people, the debate will inevitably come down to “whose side are you on?” Security moms who don’t like unstable sources of foreign oil and like higher gas prices even less, or an environmentalist lobby that has effectively blocked the building of any new domestic refineries since the ’70s?

What is more important to Democrats? To allow drilling on 2,000 surface acres out of ANWR’s total 19 million acres or to keep their liberal base happy?

Who has more sway with the Democratic Party? Hard-working Americans who must sometimes choose between filling the minivan and filling the kids’ teeth or a herd of porcupine caribou, the same kind of caribou that have thrived on Alaska’s North Slope where drilling has been ongoing for almost 30 years? Most Republicans will find these questions easy to answer.

This is a debate the Democrats don’t want and, if Republicans hold their feet to the fire, can’t win. So far, Democrats have also been able to avoid any honest discussion of Social Security, an issue that will take more time to play out; instead targeting their attacks on smaller issues like “saving the filibuster,” House “scandal,” and the qualifications of the president’s nominees.

Their end game is obvious. Keep the topic off energy, off the economy, off jobs and off security. Life and death issues matter. So do ethics, judges and presidential appointments.

But the longer Democrats can keep the media focused on minutiae, the better chance they have at deflecting attention away from their own strategic weakness — no real solutions to the country’s biggest problems.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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