Bush keeps Democrats on ropes

January 31, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - A measure of the political effectiveness of President Bush's State of the Union address was the way in which the Democratic response by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt sounded for the most part like an echo of it.

Such opposition-party retorts to a president's report on the condition of the nation customarily are strong and sometimes hostile challenges to the rosy claims made. But judging from Mr. Gephardt's generally approving words, listeners might well have concluded that the end to bipartisanship on domestic matters for which Mr. Bush pleaded was just around the corner.

On the war on terrorism, Mr. Gephardt indeed bought into that proposition in observing that there were two parties in Congress "but one resolve." That was no surprise. His remarks on domestic affairs, however, where the Democrats differ sharply with the Republican president, were so muted as to suggest there is similar unity, which clearly is not the case.

Mr. Bush deserves credit for creating that appearance by the way his domestic agenda was couched in generalizations about the need for jobless benefits, improved health care, a patients' bill of rights, saving Social Security and Medicare with prescription drug benefits.

The devil in all these issues, though, is in the details, and that's where the two parties part company.

In the time allotted to Mr. Gephardt, he could only hint at the deep differences that will invite sharp conflict on the domestic agenda in the year ahead.

Mr. Bush, in attempting to defuse the Democratic assault on the Enron scandal, called on Congress to "enact new safeguards for 401(k) and pension plans." He proposed "stricter accounting standards" and making corporate America "more accountable to employees and shareholders" - without, to be sure, mentioning Enron by name.

This was the one most partisan aspect of Mr. Gephardt's response, and even then it was with rhetorical restraint. His call for protecting employee pensions "from corporate mismanagement and abuse" sounded little different from Mr. Bush's own words. And his only mention of the energy giant by name came in touting a system of pension benefits "that follows a worker from job to job through life and protects employees from the next Enron."

Mr. Gephardt attempted to use the Enron scandal to put Mr. Bush on the spot on campaign finance reform, soon to have a critical test in the House. "If the nation's largest bankruptcy coupled with a clear example of paid political influence isn't a prime case for reform," he declared, "I don't know what is."

The Democratic leader warned that "the forces aligned against this are powerful. So if you've never called or written your member of Congress, now is the time." Knowing that Mr. Bush has not said he will sign the reform legislation, Mr. Gephardt added: "I hope the president will stand with us to clean up the political system and get big money out of politics." Notably, he made no mention of Mr. Bush's own receipt of a bundle of that big money from Enron as a candidate in 2000, when Democrats also were among the recipients.

Mr. Gephardt was muted in other responses as well. He said American values "call for tax cuts that promote growth and prosperity for all Americans," rather than taking the customary Democratic potshot at Mr. Bush's huge tax cut of last year mostly benefiting the well-off.

He only alluded to the Democratic differences on elderly retirement benefits in observing that "our values call for protecting Social Security, and not gambling it away on the stock market" - a mild dig at the GOP proposal for private investment accounts.

All in all, the Bush State of the Union speech was such an extremely effective piece of co-opting the positions of the opposition party that the old master of the art, Bill Clinton, might have been envious.

It should be remembered, however, that the whole package of State of the Union night is always heavy in rhetoric and short on the details over which the applauding Congress will soon turn into a heatedly combative arena.

If you were a referee at ringside, you would have to give the decision to Mr. Bush, who rope-a-doped his way over 15 rounds by not permitting the Democratic opposition to lay a glove on him.

But his call on Congress "to join me on these important domestic issues in the same spirit of cooperation we have applied in our war against terrorism" is no doubt too much to ask. Democrats see the domestic arena as the only one available in which to mobilize public support in the fight for control of Congress in November.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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