Democrats need another Truman

February 08, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Now that the economic stimulus package to cope with the recession has been abandoned, Republicans and Democrats in Congress can settle into a mud-wrestling match over domestic priorities the rest of this year.

For President Bush, who wants voters' focus to stay on the war on terrorism and homeland security, it's probably OK for that match to end in stalemate. But for the Democrats, the battle over the domestic agenda is their best and maybe only chance to win control of Congress in November's elections.

To succeed, they must somehow fan old embers of voter suspicion and resentment toward the GOP as the "party of the rich" from the sparks struck by the Bush tax cut favoring the well-off and by the Enron scandal. Congressional Democrats are already well into the undertaking.

The Republican response, as always, will be that the Democrats are trying to stir up class warfare by pitting lower- and middle-income voters against those who have prospered by the sweat of their brow or brain. To older Americans, the term "class warfare" may conjure up memories of the communist peril, but to younger ones it may not resonate at all.

The hard political fact, however, is that unless the Democrats are able to paint the Republicans as cold, calculating and heartless wretches with no concern for the plight of the poor, the elderly and the economically hard-pressed middle class, they are very likely to fail in their political quest.

The Republicans since the Nixon and Reagan years have done an excellent job of demonizing liberalism and the New Deal concept of government as the active helpmate of society's underdogs. So the Democrats can't count on an automatic voter response to their complaint that the party of George W. Bush really doesn't care.

While Mr. Bush's 2000 campaign mantra of compassionate conservatism hasn't been heard much since Sept. 11, he still has managed through the force of his personality as well as the war to convey a sense that he is concerned about all Americans. His embrace and expansion of the AmeriCorps concept of volunteer public service developed by President Bill Clinton is one recent illustration.

But the Democrats hope that the Enron corporate oil slick will spread and eventually engulf Mr. Bush, or at least validate and enlarge the image of the Republican Party as bedfellow of the exploitative rich and greedy. That perception would make it easier once again to pit the have-nots and the have-littles against the haves.

One development, however, has undercut the argument in recent years: Millions of middle-class Americans have invested in stocks. They consider themselves among the haves, or aspire to be so. But the Enron story, victimizing small Enron investors and scaring millions of others, may be changing that attitude.

What's missing so far from a successful Democratic class-warfare strategy is a credible messenger. The party's most prominent conveyor of the message, Sen. Ted Kennedy, is probably too controversial to play the role effectively. Nor do any of the leading aspirants for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination come off as particular spokesmen for the underdog working stiff.

What the party needs is another Harry Truman, whose homespun style connected with Main Street America in 1948 as he hammered relentlessly at the Republican "do-nothing Congress." His assaults on alleged GOP indifference to the poor and needy generated cries of "Give 'em hell, Harry!" and contributed mightily to his upset over big-business candidate Thomas Dewey.

Truman's harangue in a speech in Dexter, Iowa, for example, could be recycled in the Enron atmosphere of today: "These Republican gluttons of privilege are cold men. ... What they have taken away from you thus far would only be an appetizer for the economic tapeworm of big business!"

Charging the Republicans with being coldly insensitive was made easier at that time by the aloof personality of Dewey.

A present-day Truman would have no such convenient ploy in Mr. Bush. But the Truman message could be tailored by the right messenger to exploit the short shrift Mr. Bush has given to pressing domestic needs in his new budget. Whether the Democrats can find that right messenger is the question.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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