Democrats struggle for helpful political theme

Campaign: Seeking to offset the wartime luster of Bush and his party, Democrats turn to Social Security.

March 10, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With control of both the House and Senate hanging in the balance, Democrats are struggling to find a political theme for this year's election campaign to offset the wartime luster of President Bush.

The Enron debacle once looked as if it had the potential to snare Bush and his party in a political scandal. Indeed, the millions of dollars doled out by officials of the energy trader to candidates in both parties gave a boost to campaign finance reform legislation. But polls suggest that voters see Enron primarily as a saga of corporate misdeeds, not necessarily associated with Republicans.

Some Democrats still have high hopes that voters will blame Republicans for their economic woes. But so far, Americans seem to be holding lawmakers of both parties about equally responsible for the mild recession that appears to be over - and in any case, they blame Congress more than the president. They tell pollsters they believe the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were the primary cause of the economic downturn that has resulted in thousands of layoffs.

The high marks Bush has received for his response to the Sept. 11 attacks and the support he rallied for the war on terrorism appear to have insulated him from the political fallout that usually lands on presidents when the economy deteriorates on their watch, as it did on his father after the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

Meanwhile, the attacks on the United States and the war in Afghanistan have also distracted voters from domestic policy debates between the two parties that re-emerged within weeks of their bipartisan show of unity in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. None of the traditionally Democratic social issues, such as education, health care or the environment, appear likely so far to captivate voters who are more focused on national security.

"Politics is about highlighting differences," observed Jim Manley, a top aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "With the president fighting a war abroad and sky-high approval ratings, it's very hard for us to define the differences."

There also appears to be no value in second-guessing Bush on the conduct of the war. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle drew a blistering response from Republicans recently when he said it wasn't yet clear whether the effort to defeat Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network would be a success, partly because bin Laden is still at large. He quickly back-pedaled amid charges that he was undermining the morale of troops in the field.

Thus, Daschle and House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, both trying to advance their political fortunes, have returned to the one theme their party has been able to count on for a half-century: saving Social Security.

They have shifted their Enron rhetoric away from hints of Republican political corruption to instead fan fears about stock-based retirement savings prompted by the plight of Enron workers who lost their 401(k) nest eggs when the company went bankrupt.

Democratic leaders say they believe these fears will only increase support for the government-run retirement system - the nation's most popular social program - and give them an election-year opportunity to raise their traditional charge that Republicans would harm Social Security. This tactic has historically been successful in mobilizing Democratic votes.

"If Social Security is on the minds of voters when they go to the polls, that's good for Democrats," said Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Among the devices Gephardt and Daschle used recently to get their message out was a letter to Republican leaders of the House and Senate urging a full debate this year on President Bush's proposal to allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market.

Democrats say Bush's proposal is too risky and would require a cut in current Social Security benefits to pay for it. They want to add more money to the program so that personal retirement savings accounts could be offered in addition to - and not instead of - benefits now being provided through Social Security taxes.

Democratic leaders acknowledge that a congressional debate on the Social Security issue this year would be merely an academic exercise. Bush does not intend to formally submit the proposal for action this year because there is no consensus yet on how to deal with the delicate issue, and his Republican colleagues don't want to endanger their seats for nothing.

Even so, Gephardt announced that he would try to compel House Speaker Dennis Hastert to schedule a vote on the Bush plan with a petition signed by 218 members of the House - the same procedural maneuver that compelled Hastert to permit a vote last month on campaign finance reform.

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