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Democrats Can’t Win When ‘No!’ Is Party’s Dominant Message

Democrats can bask, if they wish, in President Bush’s gloomy poll ratings. But it’s hard to see how they will win the next election without a positive program. So far, from Social Security to energy to judicial nominations to House ethics, the Democratic position on the leading issues of the day is: “No!”

Bush and Congressional Republicans are clearly in bad shape in the public’s mind. Bush has not made the sale on his Social Security reforms. Gas prices are soaring. The stock market has fallen nearly 500 points since his inauguration. Growth is slowing.[IMGCAP(1)]

As a result, the average of Bush’s overall approval ratings is only 47.8 percent. Congress’ rating is 37.8 percent. Only 37 percent of voters think the country is headed in the right direction.

In last week’s Washington Post/ABC poll, Bush’s approval rating on the economy was down to 40 percent. His approval on energy policy was 35 percent. On Iraq, 42 percent. And, on Social Security, 31 percent.

Moreover, the public did not react favorably to GOP intervention in the Terri Schiavo case. Even though Congress has now passed a budget to go with bankruptcy and tort reform, the media has been fixated on the ethics of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and the right-wing attacks on the federal judiciary.

Yet even top Democratic strategists James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Bob Shrum — principals in the Democracy Corps polling group — say that their party has not capitalized on its opportunities.

“There is a crisis of confidence in Republican direction for the country,” the three wrote in their latest strategy memo. “Voters have turned against the Republicans’ priorities and major policy initiatives, the arrogance and style of governance and complacency before the country’s major problems,” they said.

In the firm’s newest poll, Democrats lead Republicans by 5 points in a generic Congressional ballot test, up from 1 point last month.

And yet on issues such as trustworthiness and representing needed change, doubts about the GOP “have not yet crystallized into political choice because Democrats are not yet integral to the narrative,” the three wrote. Democrats “have not wholly escaped the Washington mess. They are not yet the instrument of reform, but what an opportunity.”

The Democrats’ political strategy seems to be to thwart Bush’s signature initiative, Social Security personal savings accounts, much as the GOP blocked President Bill Clinton’s health care plan in 1994, leading to Republican gains of 52 House seats, nine Senate seats and a takeover of both chambers of Congress.

The Democrats have other historical trends working in their favor. The sixth year of a two-term presidency is almost always bad for the president’s party.

The GOP lost eight Senate and five House seats in 1986, two years after President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election. Out-party Democrats gained 16 Senate seats and 49 House seats in 1958, under President Dwight Eisenhower, and Republicans gained three Senate seats and 48 House seats in 1966 two years after President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 triumph (which was akin to a second term for the late President John F. Kennedy).

The recent exception is 1998, under Clinton, when there was no Senate change and Democrats actually gained five House seats. But that election came immediately after Republicans overplayed their hand on impeachment.

The GOP’s counterstrategy seems to be to pass what reforms it can, convince the country that it would pass more if it could, and blame Senate Democrats for “obstructionism.” That has worked in the past two elections, resulting in GOP gains and the defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) in 2004.

Bush has not succeeded in winning popular support for his Social Security plan, but he has elevated the issue to a level where Americans now expect their leaders to address it.

Thus far, however, Democrats have nothing to say on the matter except, “No personal accounts.” And Bush, in his press conference Thursday, occupied what normally would be Democratic space by advocating measures to protect the poor from Social Security benefit cuts through “progressive indexing.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) responded by isolating themselves into the position of advocating only tax increases as a means of keeping Social Security solvent. “Democrats stand ready to strengthen Social Security on a bipartisan basis,” they said, “so that all Americans receive the guaranteed benefits they have earned.” If they mean to cut no one’s benefits, the only way to keep the system solvent is to raise taxes.

According to Reid spokesman Jim Manley, “more attention is being given” in the Democratic Caucus to proposing positive alternatives, but he would not disclose details.

Last week, Reid’s office sent out a list of measures Democrats might try to push during a Senate shutdown if the GOP carries out the “nuclear option” for stopping judicial filibusters. The list included increases in funding for women’s health, family planning, veterans’ benefits and education, plus opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower oil prices and increasing the minimum wage.

It’s the beginning of a program, but even so, it certainly is not the main message of the Democratic Party. So far, the party’s message is largely the same as the one Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) carried into the last election: “I’m not Bush.” It wasn’t enough.

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