The mystery of the docile Democrats

How long will they keep jumping through Ringmaster George's hoops?

Published February 22, 2001 11:42PM (EST)

In a phone call last week, I tell former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., recently appointed president of the New School in New York, that President Bush has just officially nominated über-conservative attorney Ted Olson to be his solicitor general.

"Jesus," Kerrey says.

Olson may be a brilliant and capable attorney, but he's a harsh partisan. His nomination is the equivalent of a President Al Gore picking Alan Dershowitz. Olson's most recent foray in the public light was to work his magic before the U.S. Supreme Court before its controversial 5-4 decision that handed Bush the presidency. Perhaps even more controversially, Olson -- one of Kenneth Starr's best friends -- was also one of President Clinton's chief antagonists as head of the "Arkansas Project," the multimillion-dollar investigation into Clinton's pre-White House days as funneled through American Spectator magazine. He represented Whitewater witness David Hale, and coached Paula Jones' attorneys before their Supreme Court argument.

"He shouldn't be confirmed," Kerrey says. "If this guy had been funded by the American Socialist party during the Reagan administration, and had attacked Ronald Reagan over and over and then a Democrat nominated him, the Republicans wouldn't vote to confirm him."

But Kerrey's voice is probably the only one you hear criticizing the Olson nomination.

Some would use this as further evidence that the Democratic Party has gone AWOL. The perfect symbol for the Democratic Party's impotence, they say, is the fevered, passive hope -- what its members whisper about away from the TV cameras and NPR microphones -- that the recently hospitalized Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., 98, might soon die, and be replaced with a Democratic senator by South Carolina's Democratic governor.

"Obviously, it's a hard time for Democrats," says former Clinton domestic policy director Bruce Reed, who just became president of the Democratic Leadership Council. "We didn't win the election and we don't control the agenda. It remains to be seen how good we are at defense now that we've lost our goalie."

"Bush is acting like he won 60 percent of the vote and 340 electoral votes on top of it," Kerrey says. "He's pressing way beyond his mandate."

But who's to stand in his way? "They're trying to get their sea legs," Kerrey says of his former colleagues.

To many liberals, the Democrats just seem like wimps -- "Why the Democrats Are Getting Rolled," reads the headline of the New Republic. The frontline reports are grim: A recent New York Times story reports: "Democrats said they felt all the more leaderless because of the lingering strains between Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton, which have been heightened by the controversies over gifts and pardons." The analyses are rude: "It's been painful to watch the Democrats roll over and play dead for George W. Bush since his coronation," reads an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor.

But while it's clear that Bush's first four weeks as president have gone fairly well (as first four weeks usually do), the notion that Bush is romping and the Democrats -- now without control of the House, Senate or White House for the first time since Eisenhower -- are taking a dive is a rather simplistic analysis and drives Democrats on the Hill crazy.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is clearly irritated at any notion that Democrats are "getting rolled." While media speculation had scores of Democrats jumping ship in droves, as in 1981, to support the Republican president's tax cut, Frank says: "How many Democrats are in favor of his tax plan? One: Zell Miller, the accidental senator." (Former Georgia Gov. Miller had retired from public life until Democrats begged him to serve as the replacement for the late Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Republican, who died last year.)

Frank begins rattling off a list: "Ashcroft was the bitterest fight, the most substantial opposition to block a Cabinet nomination since John Tower. ... Dick Gephardt is in the middle of a big fight over election reform in the House." Also, Bush is and will increasingly be on the defensive over the patients bill of rights and campaign finance reform, Frank assures.

"This whole notion that we're not fighting him is journalistic bullshit," Frank says.

Instead, what Democrats say is: We're biding our time for the big battles -- like, say, when Bush announces his budget next week.

But until then, they are clearly fumbling. The real question for the Democrats: What's their choice?

They do have a convenient target to blame: the president and his legacy of outgoing blunders. (Kerrey says: "Every time you see [a Democrat] on the weekend shows, the first question is, 'Do you think Clinton should have pardoned Marc Rich?'" Says Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.: "It's a sizable diversion.")

But there's been internal confusion, as well. For instance, Frank says, a couple of weekends ago, at the Democratic Caucus retreat, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin spoke against the Bush tax cut. But Rubin told his fellow Democrats that he couldn't do so publicly, since as a former secretary of the treasury he thought it inappropriate to intrude too politically into the matter.

Democrats objected to this; they wanted him out there slamming the tax cut. They pointed out that former Treasury Secretary James Baker III didn't seem to have too many attacks of conscience when he was demagoguing on Bush's behalf down in Tallahassee, warning of crashing markets and the pending apocalypse if Gore didn't immediately concede. On Sunday, Feb. 11, Rubin's op-ed, "A Prosperity Easy to Destroy," appeared in the New York Times.

But one well-placed New York Times op-ed does not an effective message make, and Democratic opposition to the Bush tax cut has yet to gel. Even Frank allows that the Democrats are "trying to figure out what's the best way to oppose the Republican tax plan."

"There's significant division on how to proceed," Kerrey says. "There's a split in the party as to whether Gore was too populist or not populist enough, instead of uniting around the idea that Gore really won the election and Bush is claiming a mandate he doesn't have." (Which is what Kerrey thinks they should be doing.)

"At the moment, there's not a single, coherent message," groused an executive at a leading liberal political action committee last week. "Which is what Bush has done so brilliantly. We, on the other hand, have different kinds of objections, different kinds of alternate proposals." On Feb. 7, he says, the liberal "Progressive Caucus" held a press conference to denounce the Bush tax cut, and each of the half-dozen speakers from the liberal wings of the House and Senate had his or her own specific idea and criticism. "There is a bit of a vacuum in terms of coherent message and message discipline," says this executive. "And Bush has both of those in spades."

But even when the Democrats do speak in one voice, the Democrats' press conferences have had limited effect. The press conference against the Bush tax cut proposal held two weeks ago, for instance, by the designated congressional leaders of the party -- Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. -- didn't seem to make much noise.

Why? Well, there's the fact that Clinton's taking up all the airtime. But also it's because Daschle's claim -- "If you make over $300,000 a year, this tax cut means you get to buy a new Lexus. If you make $50,000 a year, you get to buy a muffler on your used car. That's the difference. That's what we're talking about here. A Lexus versus a muffler" -- wasn't fully accurate. That "make over $300,000" number works only if you ramp it up to over $1 million. A family making $300,000 would gain about a $10,000 tax cut -- not bad, but hardly Lexus cash.

So, yes, the message needs to be accurate. And they need to settle on one distinct plan, which they apparently have now done. Internally, within the Democratic caucus, they have been divided over whether they should offer big tax cuts of their own, or channel the surplus toward deficit reduction, or pay for new popular government programs like a prescription drug benefit for seniors. It wasn't until last week that the caucus decided on its one-third/one-third/one-third plan, in which the surplus will be split evenly among all these priorities.

"Conrad's going to play point man on this," says a senior Senate Democratic aide, referring to Sen. Kent Conrad from North Dakota, the only Democrat on both the budget and finance committees. "This will be our most visible endeavor against the president."

Neither Conrad nor Daschle nor Gephardt has emerged as a compelling spokesman against the president. It's early yet, of course. Maybe Conrad will prove scintillating; maybe Bayh or Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina will emerge as a star, but right now there does seem to be something of a charisma deficit on the left side of the aisle. If you thought Al Gore was wanting in the sex-appeal department, wait till you see his demon spawn, extras from "Night of the Barely-Living Dead."

And image is important. "The Bush people -- and I credit [communications adviser] Karen Hughes with this -- are brilliant at packaging," says the liberal advocacy group executive. "They've done a marvelous job on taking the offensive on their issues, with message discipline in a way we haven't seen in the last eight years."

Frank, though, says that Bush has had less success than is widely believed, losing a few of these battles -- but he's a skilled politician. "Bush is very smart," Frank says. "You don't see the fights -- he gives up better than a lot of people." The ill-fated nomination of Linda Chavez as labor secretary, and the inclusion of a firm commitment to school vouchers in his education plan were both examples of political liabilities that he quickly dropped when he realized public sentiment was against him.

And Democrats vow that Bush will be even less successful when he has to get specific. Bayh, the newly elected chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, says voters can expect to see more Democratic spine when the tax plan truly hits the Hill. As opposed to the nomination of John Ashcroft, which was greeted with 42 Democrats' voting nay, but eight defections. Bayh says that the "42" number -- which can support a filibuster in the case of a future Supreme Court nomination -- is far more significant than the eight.

Bayh also points out that moderate Republicans like Sens. Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island "are expressing doubts about the tax plan." Still, while deferring vote-counting and party cohesion matters to Tom Daschle, Bayh vows that there won't be eight Democrats peeling off on the Bush tax cut.

"The real test is going to come not just from 'changing the tone,' but trying to make progress on substance," says Bayh.

But the Democrats are, frankly, still trying to figure this Bush guy out. Sure, in terms of the size of his tax cut, the Ashcroft and Olson nominations, the executive orders against family planning abroad, Bush sure seems like he's governing from the far right.

Bayh, for one, wonders about that. "The question is, is this a negotiating tactic or are these positions where he's going to remain?" Bayh asks. "It may be that he's taking these positions for bargaining purposes we can strike a compromise from; we don't know yet. You know, we're less than a month into this. We don't know how he's going to operate yet."

"He seems to want to secure the far right, put some capital in the bank there," Bayh says, but wonders "if he did that so as to give himself more leeway to get to the center later on."

Indeed, some members are trying their darnedest to divine Bush's actual intentions. Rep. Joe Hoeffel, for instance, is a Democrat who represents much of Montgomery County, Pa. -- a crucial swing area of the country, wealthy leafy Republican suburbs whose voters went for Gore. And Hoeffel is intrigued by what he sees as a possible indication that Bush is willing to compromise on the size of his tax cut.

The "$1.6 trillion" tax cut actually has a $2.4 trillion price tag, Hoeffel says, repeating one of the more recent Democratic talking points. You start out with $1.6 trillion, then tack on $200 billion to make it retroactive to Jan. 1, as Bush has said he wants. Then you tack on another $400 billion in lost interest payments on the national debt. Then there's another $200 billion in adjusting the alternative minimum tax. (This is a tax once added to make sure that wealthy people paid something. But it wasn't inflation adjusted, and -- especially with Bush's proposed tax cut, it's one that is now hitting middle-income folks in a way it wasn't supposed to.)

"But Bush keeps saying, 'No, it's $1.6 trillion, $1.6 trillion, $1.6 trillion,'" Hoeffel says. "I think he's signaling that he's willing to compromise, to make it less expensive, to make adjustments down the road."

Which may be one of the more fundamental points: As believers in government, Democrats are, in general, less inclined to throw out the baby with the bath water. And there seem to be a number of Democrats who actually want to get something accomplished with Bush. Not on the tax cut, which Hoeffel says he will almost definitely vote against in its present form, but on education.

"Just a few years ago, Republicans wanted to demolish the Department of Education," Hoeffel says. "Bush is proposing 85 percent of what the DLC was proposing a year ago through [Sen. Joseph] Lieberman and [Rep.] Cal Dooley" -- a California Democrat. "Bush's plan is night and day to where Bob Dole was, and we're aware of that."

And yet ... Democrats do point to opportunities where Bush has feet of clay. For all his praise of Bush's political skills and his appreciation of the fact that Bush came to the Democratic retreat, Hoeffel says that he was "surprised that he was so ill-prepared on the issues." It was clear to all, Hoeffel says, that Bush didn't know anything about the latest debate about the census, and the use (and potential benefits and pratfalls) of statistical sampling. Worse, Bush didn't seem to fully understand his executive order cutting off U.S. aid to international family planning agencies.

"I don't think he'd understood what he'd done," Hoeffel says. "He seemed to think that he'd cut off money to fund abortions overseas, when of course that was already illegal."

Bush, of course, has yet to be asked about this matter: He hasn't held a formal press conference as president. Which could be at least part of the reason why he's doing so well and the Democrats aren't.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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