Guest editorial - The economy and the Democrats' risky strategy

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

By David Keene

WASHINGTON -- Except in time of war, U.S. elections tend to turn on the incumbent party's handling of the economy. It is a truism the Democrats may run smack into as they prepare to run against a party headed by a popular wartime leader during an economic upswing.

The president's popularity is today traceable almost exclusively to the fact that Americans perceive him to be doing an incredible job against a new international enemy. Doubts about the man vanished in the days following the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Americans found themselves rallying around a president who had clearly found his voice, connected with America, and was displaying just the leadership qualities they seek at such times.

Democrats quickly adjusted by endorsing him as a war leader, but looked for chinks in his armor as they prepared to do battle both in Congress and in public this year. After a few false starts, they have hit on what appears to be a three-part strategy that is both politically divisive and capable of backfiring on them.

First, they seem willing (absent a military disaster) to concede Bush his popularity as commander-in-chief. They argue, simply, that this isn't enough because he and his party have either lost sight of the nation's domestic needs or, worse, are pursuing policies that they know will hurt average Americans.

This is the thrust of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's (D-S.D.) crusade against the president.

If the economy turns around -- as many experts suspect it is beginning to do -- Daschle will be seen as a whining partisan with little ground on which to stand. He's already coming across as both strident and personal. This is dangerous in itself, but doubly so when one realizes that there are economic signs that the recession on which he's pinned his hopes may be winding down.

The second leg of the emerging Democratic strategy impresses me as potentially even more dangerous. It involves separating the president from his congressional party and then arguing, in essence, that by appealing to religious voters in this country, the GOP represents the same sort of "fundamentalist" tendencies that we are fighting in Central Asia.

There were hints of this in a strategy memo prepared late last year by political consultants James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stan Greenberg and it would be an approach that might well appeal to liberal Democratic base voters in Manhattan and California. Unfortunately for their party, however, it could drive millions of other voters into the hands of the GOP and motivate religiously oriented voters who stayed away from the polls in 1998 and 2000 to return.

The third leg of the strategy is based more on ideologically motivated wishful thinking than reality. Many Democrats have managed to convince themselves that, because Americans turn to the government for protection during a time of international crisis, they will support a larger role for the federal government on an across-the-board basis. Thus, Carville and his friends argued in their memorandum that Democrats should be proud of and expect to profit from the fact that they are the "government party."

As a result, Democrats are blaming everything they can on the GOP desire to cut taxes and government and suggesting that the answers to all our ills are to be found where they've always believed them to be -- in higher taxes, more spending and bigger government. This is a road their party has traveled before at the behest of many of the same people who are urging them to take it again.

But what else can they do? They are, after all, in a corner. History suggests they'll lose this fall and there is a great deal at risk. Redistricting is going to make it even more difficult to retake the House than any of them might have imagined a year ago and holding the Senate wouldn't have been a walk in the park even if the World Trade towers were still standing.

To win, they have to bet against an economic recovery or hope for a Bush screw-up on the war, but have to be careful not to be caught doing either.

David Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and is a D.C.-based governmental affairs consultant.

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