He's a man with a plan

April 28, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - If there is one political imperative for the Democratic presidential hopefuls for 2004, it is somehow to get voters to shift their focus from the Iraq war and global terrorism to the nation's serious problems at home.

As the Democratic Party learned to its dismay in the congressional elections last fall, as long as George W. Bush monopolizes public attention and approval as a wartime president, the Democrats will be relegated to impotent political onlookers.

Those Democrats with White House aspirations who took issue with Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq, most notably Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Bob Graham and, to a degree, John Kerry, have particular reason to want the war on Iraq to assume a lower profile as the 2004 election approaches.

But even the staunchest supporters of the war among the Democratic candidates - Richard A. Gephardt, Joseph I. Lieberman and John Edwards - recognize that they must come up with an issue that will compel voters to look homeward and critically toward the high-flying president if they hope to beat him.

The general condition of the economy is the most obvious prospect for Democratic targeting. With the stock market flagging and Mr. Bush insisting on another round of fat tax cuts beneficial largely to the well-off, this is a classic "class warfare" issue for the opposition party that still advertises itself as the defender of the working stiff.

But the sad state of the economy proved to be woefully inadequate as a voting distraction last November, when the Democrats hoped it would trump the president's concentration on disarming Iraq, getting rid of Saddam Hussein and beefing up homeland security.

Now comes the first major and explicit election-year issue from one of the Democratic presidential candidates - an ambitious new version of Bill Clinton's failed call for universal health insurance from Mr. Gephardt, a congressional veteran of more than 20 years seeking to project himself as a man of new ideas. The former House Democratic leader's plan would provide access to health insurance for all Americans, including the 41 million now not covered.

Unlike Mr. Clinton's plan put together amid much criticism by his wife, Hillary, Mr. Gephardt's would not create a new bureaucracy and thus would not take on the private insurance industry as the Clintons' did. It would work through the insurance companies by requiring employers to provide coverage for their workers, with federal help to employers through refundable tax credits and direct financial aid to low-income employees.

No doubt the insurance lobby will find reasons to oppose the Gephardt plan, probably trotting out another version of its effective "Harry and Louise" television ads that helped scuttle the Clinton plan with slick scare tactics about health care administered by some quack other than your old reliable family doctor.

But Mr. Gephardt has deftly tied his proposal into an assault on the Bush tax cuts. Its $210 billion estimated cost would be paid for in part by dropping the $1.3 trillion tax cuts already enacted and killing off the president's plans for another $726 billion, which already face being cut in half in Congress.

Mr. Gephardt peddled his approach before a union audience as "the right way to stimulate the economy, not knee-jerk tax cuts that do nothing but pay off George Bush's wealthy campaign contributors while killing economic growth." The remark took dead aim at the president's own pitch for his newest tax cuts as an "economic stimulus package."

In a Republican Party marching in lockstep with the president on the war front, there are defectors on tax cuts. One of them, Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, drew a Bush visit to his home state the other day in which the president dismissed a $350 billion cut, which Mr. Voinovich says is plenty, as "itty-bitty." Mr. Gephardt no doubt will note that the amount would be more than enough to bankroll his health plan the first year.

A clear objective of each of the nine declared Democratic candidates is to separate himself from the pack in taking on the incumbent president on an issue that can win for him. Mr. Gephardt has already found the one he thinks will do it, while the others are still looking.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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