Dems ignore Cuomo's advice to stand and fight On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover whB

October 30, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — 5/8 TC Washington -- IN ALL the Democratic yearning for Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York to enter the 1992 presidential race, the emphasis is nearly always on the man's charisma -- his ability through oratory and style to excite voters, especially the middle class on which h the old flames of the Democratic Party as the engine of change and champion of the disadvantaged, which according to Democratic rhetoric now includes the overtaxed, under-serviced middle class.

But while the salivating Democrats are concentrating on Cuomo the messenger, whom they may or may not be able to get as a candidate, they are ignoring one essential part of his message as delivered repeatedly to Democratic groups in recent months. Cuomo in fact has been arguing, at least until recently, that the message is much more important than the messenger, and that some other Democrat can deliver it as well as he can.

The message, simply put, is this: cram a Democratic agenda down President Bush's throat, and if he spits it out, let the voters decide in 1992 which side is right.

More specifically, Cuomo argues that the Democratic-controlled Congress should recognize that a presidential election year is at hand and should pass a slate of legislation that embodies its own notions of what the country needs to get out of its economic morass and stalemate on domestic progress. Then these bills should be sent to the White House for the president to accept or veto. The result, Cuomo argues, will be a clear-cut record of where the Democrats want to go and where Bush wants to go after the 1992 election.

The idea seems engagingly simple, but one major problem stands in its way. The Democratic leadership in the House and Senate doesn't think of its role the way Cuomo does. House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell see themselves and their legislative branch as part of the governing process, in partnership with Bush and his executive branch, to produce what they like to think of as responsible legislation.

This attitude is quite noble, and would be nobler still if it were shared by the White House. But the Republican president instead usually thinks and acts in politically combative rather than cooperative terms, especially as the presidential election year draws near. Witness Bush's recent outburst of partisan Congress-bashing in the guise of "advising" the Senate on how it can improve its confirmation process in the wake of the bipartisan fiasco of the Clarence Thomas hearings.

Only when there seems a risk of political damage resulting from Bush's government-by-veto posture on such matters as the recent civil-rights bill does the White House retreat from it. Cuomo's idea is for the Democratic congressional leadership to put aside compromise for now at least, send Bush undiluted Democratic legislation, let him veto it if he chooses, and thus present the voters an unambiguous choice on the future direction of government action or non-action.

It can be said that Cuomo as a governor simply doesn't understand how Washington works, and that his approach is naive. The governor himself reveals a certain disingenuousness about it when he says it would be presumptuous of him, a mere governor, to discuss that approach with Foley and Mitchell. Furthermore, the Democrats in Congress don't march in lockstep; fashioning a clear-cut Democratic agenda is easier said than done.

Still, the basic strategy of the Democrats laying down the terms of the election-year debate in concrete form and obliging Bush to respond makes sense. Its biggest problem may be that a presidential campaign can't be conducted from Congress. The party will still need an effective and dynamic messenger for the message on the campaign trail.

In the pre-convention period, however, the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, with six or more candidates in the field, is certain to create divisions and to blur the Democratic message, especially with Sen. Tom Harkin reciting the old-time New Deal religion and others saying last rites over it. For the general election, though, the Cuomo idea of inviting Bush vetoes on a range of domestic issues could present the eventual Democratic nominee much ammunition to fire at the Republican incumbent in the fall.

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