THROUGH SHEER, blithering ineptitude, President Bush has helped the Democrats become a real opposition party. That is the first step in the Democrats' resurrection. The second is to become a governing party. That goal is still a ways off.
"For the first time in a decade, Democrats have the upper hand in the defining game," a leading Democratic strategist told the Washington Post. "The Democrats are defining the Republicans as the party of the rich and not of the middle class." But another Democratic strategist acknowledged to the New York Times, "We've done a better job at defining the Republicans than we have in defining ourselves."
When the president started talking about a big tax break for the rich, the Democrats saw their opportunity. And they took it. House Democrats rallied to a Ways and Means Committee proposal that would raise $160 billion in taxes over five years, more than half of it from upper-income taxpayers. Suddenly, the party discovered what being a Democrat was all about. Higher taxes? No, fairness.
Economic populism is the issue that always held the Democratic Party together, even in the days when it was tearing itself apart over race and Vietnam. (It almost got Hubert Humphrey elected president in 1968.) When economic populism lost its appeal in the 1980s, the Democrats were in danger of becoming a party of "limousine liberals."
By comparison, the Republicans have always had to bear the burden of economic elitism. The GOP took a calculated risk in 1988 by nominating Bush, the first Republican presidential nominee to be born to wealth and privilege since William Howard Taft in 1912. (Not only that, but Bush was vice president, an office that turns everyone who occupies it into a wimp.) It was Bush's good fortune that the Democrats put up a candidate who was more of an elitist (and more of a wimp) than he was.
The current battle over the budget deficit was the occasion when the country -- and the Republican Party -- rediscovered what they didn't like about Bush. "I had an Excedrin headache all day long after that Washington Post headline Wednesday," Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas said. The headline he was referring to said, "Bush wavers on taxing rich as senators protest."
The failure of the bipartisan budget deal drove the two parties back to their hard-core principles. For Republicans, that means "no new taxes." For Democrats, that means "soak the rich." It would be interesting to find out whether Americans hate the rich more than they hate taxes. Bush obviated the debate, however, when he proposed a plan that seemed to raise taxes for everyone except the rich.
Is either party's position credible? Bush certainly makes it hard for Republicans to hold the anti-tax line. But it's also hard for people to believe the deficit can be cut without at least some new taxes. "To make a meaningful reduction in the deficit," a Time poll asked last month, "do you think it will be necessary for all Americans to share some of the costs or not?" Three-fourths said yes.
Democrats assume that the public has reconciled itself to the need for higher taxes, and it's only a question of who pays. No fewer than 86 percent told a CBS News-New York Times poll this month that they would be willing to see taxes raised for people with annual incomes of more than $100,000. On the other hand, a majority said they would not be willing to pay $100 a year more in taxes themselves.
Most people define the rich as "not me." As Gov. James J. Florio, D-N.J., has discovered, any serious attempt to resolve fiscal problems is likely to mean taxing a whole lot of people who do not consider themselves rich. Even the Ways and Means Committee proposal would increase taxes for middle-income people by 1.5-2.7 percent. (The boost would be 6.8 percent for the wealthiest 1 percent.) Nevertheless, the plan raises less than $150 billion of the $500 billion deficit reduction goal over the next five years.
The newly emboldened House Democrats may have a much bigger problem -- Senate Democrats. Bush is counting on the Senate to give him a bipartisan deal very close to the summit plan the House rejected earlier this month. And Senate Democratic leaders seem happy to oblige. They have already made a deal with Senate Republicans to block the House measure.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine has said he favors a boost in the top tax rate but added that Bush would veto it. Which sounds suspiciously like Bush's position. Though Bush believes in a capital gains tax cut, he feels, he said, that pursuing a deal with Congress would be "a waste of time."
All this may explain an interesting anomaly in the opinion polls. According to the CBS-Times poll, the public gives Congress a 2-1 negative job rating. By 7-2, people feel members of Congress are more interested in serving special interests than the people they represent.
At the same time, by better than 2-1, respondents to that poll say that they trust Congress more than Bush to "make better decisions about what to do to reduce the federal budget deficit."
In other words, people feel Democrats are more committed to protecting their interests than Republicans are. They also feel Democrats are doing a lousy job of it.