Washington -- IT SEEMS finally to have dawned on the Democratic leadership in Congress that there's going to be a presidential election next year, a fact that was acknowledged months ago by President Bush in his relentless bashing of that same Democratic leadership.
A clear sign that the light bulb has gone on is the announcement that the House Ways and Means Committee will start hearings next Thursday on anti-recession tax cuts and that the Senate Finance Committee will follow suit on Dec. 12. House Speaker Tom Foley, after first saying the controlling Democratic leadership might also call the full Congress back to act on the outcome, settled for this more modest but still clear Democratic initiative on coping with the stagnant economy.
In so doing, Foley underscored President Bush's apparent willingness to let nature take its course on the economy, on assurances from his economic advisers that recovery is just around the corner. Bush's off-again, on-again embrace of a hurry-up House Republican tax-cut proposal, coupled with a demand that Congress act on it before going home for Thanksgiving, played directly into Foley's hands.
The speaker, who often has shied away from confrontation with the Republican president to the exasperation of many Hill Democrats, this time called Bush's bluff. He invited the president to make a categorical request for specific action on a middle-class tax cut, saying he would keep the House in session to act on it.
Bush's response, that he saw no sense in having Congress hang around after Thanksgiving when it had failed to act all year on a number of important pieces of legislation, accommodatingly put the ball in Foley's court. The speaker picked it up and ran with it by saying, in effect, that if the president failed to see the urgency in combating the drawn-out recession, the Democratic leadership certainly saw it and was determined to act.
Holding Democratic-inspired hearings on middle-income tax cuts is an astute political move. It not only makes Bush seem uncaring about the plight of all those hit hard by the recession but also deprives the president of the luxury of having the political stage to himself to bash Congress through December and most of January, with the full House and Senate out of town.
The Democrats playing this sort of political hardball is particularly noteworthy because both Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell have often been reluctant to let partisan politics drive them to the degree that it dictates Bush's relations with Congress. Reflecting the view of the congressional arm of the Democratic Party that wins elections, rather than the presidential arm that loses them, Foley and Mitchell have repeatedly emphasized their role in "governance" -- that is, as elected responsible partners with the Republican-held executive branch in running the country.
They have been cool to the suggestion of Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York that the Democratic leadership in Congress should simply pass a strong Democratic agenda, invite President Bush's vetoes, then go to the country to choose. By taking steps toward writing a Democratic tax-cut bill aimed at relief for middle-class voters, Foley seems to be following exactly that strategy, at the same time most of the declared Democratic presidential candidates are getting the middle-class electorate in their sights.
For this hardball approach to pay off, the Democrats obviously need Bush's economic advisers to be wrong, and for the recession to cling through the early primary months as the Democratic candidates take advantage of the increased media attention that will come their way. Bush's counter so far has been to say that his Democratic critics are callously hoping for economic failure in order to press their narrow political objectives, and that he is, in what is becoming his favorite phrase, "sick and tired of it."
He's right about the Democrats' political need for a continuing recession, which only means that the Democratic congressional leaders may at last have decided it's the season to put their noble concerns about "governance" on hold while they pitch in and do what it takes to try to elect a Democratic president. If that includes playing unvarnished political hardball in the competition to reclaim middle-class voters lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and to George Bush in 1988, that will be no more than the Republicans have been doing over the last decade.