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Democrats Do Plan to ‘Go Positive’ — But Not Until 2006

Democrats have an answer to the question, “OK, what’s your alternative to the Bush policies you constantly criticize?” It is: “We’re working on it.”

When it emerges, in a form yet to be determined, it’s likely to include proposals for tax reform, health insurance, energy independence, national security and retirement reform. [IMGCAP(1)]

Both House and Senate Democrats, plus outside consultants and think tank operatives, say that the party should have a full-blown alternative agenda to take into the 2006 elections — but that it doesn’t need one yet.

Democrats think that 2006 could be — in the words of Democracy Corps, the liberal polling group — “a major change election,” like 1994, when Republicans gained 52 House seats and nine Senate seats and took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

They think that 1994 happened to them because of negative campaigning by Republicans against then-President Bill Clinton, defeat of his signature health care initiative and perceived corruption in the Democratic Congress.

Duplicating the 1994 pattern, Democrats have been relentlessly pummeling President Bush on Iraq, gas prices and hurricane lapses and just-indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) for alleged “corruption.”

They point out that the Republicans’ positive agenda, the famous “Contract with America,” wasn’t unveiled until Sept. 27, 1994. According to Fox News correspondent Major Garrett, who wrote a book on the subject, it had its origins in a February 1993 House GOP decision to assemble a budget to counter Clinton’s.

House Democrats already produce counter-budgets — this year’s is silent on tax increases — and one key House leader said that while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hasn’t said so, “I can’t imagine us not” producing a contract-style agenda sometime in 2006.

“There’s no doubt that we are going to lay out an agenda that meets the challenges that America faces,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and author of proposals on tax reform, lobbying reform and importation of pharmaceuticals.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who’s already issued a “Democratic National Security Strategy for the 21st Century” with 15 moderate colleagues, told me that “what we needed to do in the first year of this Congress is to point out how the administration has failed.

“And, of course, the administration has helped us on that. And then next year we have to continue to talk about how they’ve failed. … If we don’t have some positive things to say, Americans may still vote for us because they’re angry, but I don’t think we should rely on that.”

House and Senate Democrats are delighted with the apparent defeat of Bush’s Social Security “privatization” plan — the political equivalent, they think, of the Clinton 1994 health debacle — and Senate Democrats are planning to replicate the tactics and structure of that campaign on other issues for 2006.

As Roll Call reported last week, Senate Democratic leaders have assigned Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and her chief of staff to work on “energy independence by 2020,” Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) to work up a health agenda and Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.) to draft national security messages, while Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) continues to serve as the point man on retirement issues. Another Senator, identity unknown, will lead on “government reform and correcting this Republican culture of corruption,” a leadership aide said.

On Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the GOP Contract with America — and the day before DeLay’s indictment — House Democratic leaders held a press conference to denounce GOP “corruption and cronyism.” Emanuel charged that GOP leaders who promised reform “should be sued for breach of contract.”

One key outside consultant told me he once thought Democrats needed to come forward with positive messages immediately, but that he’s changed his mind.

“The Republican numbers are bad now, bad across the board,” he said. “So, we have time. Let them stew in their juices a bit longer. They perfected this in ’94 and it worked for them. What’s the one thing we’ve done? We’ve held the line on Social Security. Did we do anything else? Not that I can tell.”

This consultant acknowledged, though, that while “we’re not hurt,” the Democratic Party’s “numbers are not any better than theirs.”

According to the latest Democracy Corps poll, Democrats now enjoy a 9-point advantage in a generic Congressional preference poll and are running stronger in unidentified seat-by-seat matchups.

Yet the poll found that the public’s general opinion of Democrats is no better than it is of Republicans, that “feelings about Democrats are at a 2.5-year low” and that Democrats receive only 48 percent of the 2006 preference ballot — the same as their 2004 showing.

This should tell Democrats that they ought to start talking about what they stand for — and make it good.

In an interview Monday with Roll Call editors and reporters, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) claimed to “feel pretty good about the majority.”

“If I had to guess today I’d say we’re in a plus- or minus-two environment,” he said, when Democrats need to pick up 16 seats to take over the House.

“I think the problem our friends on the other side have is that they can’t win without ideas and they can’t win with the ideas they have. If they don’t come forward with the kind of proposals that Republicans brought to the public arena in 1994, they’re not going to win the majority. And the kind of ideas that Leader Pelosi will come up with are not likely to be the kind of ideas that will appeal to the country.”

Maybe. Or maybe not. Various Democrats and allied think tanks such as the Center for American Progress are crafting policy proposals that could have appeal, such as Hoyer’s “Manhattan Project” for energy independence and Emanuel’s plans to simplify various tax benefit provisions for the middle class and make mortgage-interest deductions available to taxpayers who don’t itemize.

The CAP think tank agenda, which I’ll discuss at greater length in another column, is imaginative but also expensive and involves significant tax increases for those making more than $120,000 a year. The GOP is just waiting for Democrats to raise taxes.

The good news is that Democrats know they have to be positive eventually. I think it would be to their advantage to speed up the process.

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