"Wrapping themselves in the flag with their hands in the cookie jar"

Emboldened Democrats and progressives are still wary of attacking Bush, but they accuse his party of trying to use wartime popularity to ram through regressive measures.

Published November 20, 2001 8:29PM (EST)

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may not have destroyed the American way of life, but they temporarily blocked the ever-bubbling spring that waters its political system: fundraising.

As the nation struggled to come to grips with the worst single-day death toll inflicted on it in its history, Democrats and other groups often critical of the Bush administration were forced to cancel a series of fundraising events. "Following Sept. 11, we had to cancel eight events that were scheduled between the 11th and the middle of October," DNC spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said. "We lost about $1.7 million there." Palmieri said the Democrats also stopped their direct mail campaigns for a while.

Now, however, the Dems are back to their familiar ways -- raising money, and lots of it. "We're going to exceed our target for November," Palmieri said. Much of that money will come from a Democratic National Committee fundraiser to be held in Harlem's Apollo Theater, just before the three-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Palmieri said the event is expected to raise "in the millions."

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reported they had seen a 20 percent increase in fundraising dollars compared to September 1999. And though Republicans have lost their two greatest fundraising attractions -- President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- they too are swimming in money. Through the end of the third quarter, the National Republican Senatorial Committee had raised more than $33 million, $16.3 of which is still in the bank. The Republican National Committee is sitting on about $26 million.

For political opponents of the Bush administration, fundraising presents new challenges in the post-Sept. 11 world. Commander in Chief Bush enjoys astronomically high approval ratings and personal criticism of him is extremely politically risky. Groups like Greenpeace and the National Resources Defense Council -- and even the DNC -- have adjusted to the wartime atmosphere by making their fundraising more issue-focused and less personal than before.

"When we think the administration is wrong, we'll say so. We're just working very hard not to make it personal," says NRDC spokesman Alan Metrick. "It's not about personalities, it's about programs and about policy. Keeping it on that high tone we think is the secret to success."

The DNC has often relied on partisanship to shake the money tree, but Palmieri says they've changed their tone since the attacks. "We start off every fundraising letter talking about how much we support the president, and how we sincerely feel he's doing a good job, and his team is doing a good job, but we have no problem politically or otherwise stating that at the same time we differ with him on domestic issues," she said. "We've got to straddle a line between supporting Bush on the military front, but we have principled differences on domestic issues. People are sophisticated enough to get that."

A true sign of how Sept. 11 affected the political landscape came in the DNC's reaction to Democratic victories in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. Normally, such off-year victories would be hailed as a harbinger of things to come in the upcoming midterm elections, and perhaps used to rebuke the president -- as the Republicans gleefully did when they captured Congress in 1994. DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe did hail the victories as "a repudiation of the stale ideas of the Republican Party," but Palmieri said, "voters understand that it wasn't a repudiation of Bush by any means. It had nothing to do with Bush."

While Bush's conduct of the war proper enjoys virtually universal support in Congress, the bipartisanship ends at the Afghanistan border. As the midterm elections approach, Democrats, while being careful not to criticize the president, are increasingly striving to draw lines between themselves and Republicans -- and are willing to play political hardball over issues they see as essential. Earlier this month, Democrats won a key victory on an airport security bill, which was signed by Bush Monday. And the current fight over an economic stimulus package has deteriorated into a partisan battle in the halls of Congress, just like the good ol' days.

At a rally last week, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said of the Republicans: "They killed our economic recovery and homeland security bill ... and if they think the answer is billions of dollars in tax cuts for wealthy individuals and profitable corporations, they need to explain to the American people why that is."

When asked about Daschle's comments, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott told Fox News Sunday, "Well, they rammed through a totally partisan bill through the Finance Committee on an 11-10 vote. We told them then, if you try to go to the floor with this package -- which is really just more typical Democrat spending programs; it really won't have a stimulative effect -- it won't get through the Senate. We told them that, they knew that. And then when the vote occurred on the Senate floor and everything came to a halt, then they start trying to blame somebody ... I'm beginning to wonder if Senator Daschle really wants a stimulative package for the economy, because he's shown no movement toward sitting down and getting a serious discussion going."

Fox anchor Tony Snow followed up, asking Lott, "Does that mean that you think he wants to see the economy in bad shape as next year's election approaches?

"I'm beginning to wonder if they'd rather -- basically are saying, do our spending package or we won't agree to anything," Lott replied.

Just as Lott escalated the rhetorical war by questioning whether the Democrats were intentionally dragging down the economy for political gain, so, too, Democrats and activists on the left ratcheted their tactics up a notch. Increasingly, they're painting a picture of an administration that has gotten greedy, trying to leverage popular support for the war against terrorism into support for old, contentious political issues.

"They've got this newfound political power, they've got 90-95 percent support for the war. I think they wanted to test if that support for the war would translate to the same old-fashioned rip-off on behalf of these same corporate benefactors," said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "And I think what they're learning is, the answer is no, because the public and groups like Greenpeace aren't afraid to call them on it."

Passacantando pointed out that the White House tried to revisit drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after Sept. 11, but quickly backed down after the public didn't go for it. "Now, the greed is tempered by the fear of backlash from the public if caught with your hand in the cookie jar while wrapping yourself in the flag at the same time."

In addition to the changed political climate, political fundraisers must also deal with the nation's staggering economy. With America mired in an economic slowdown, the hit on people's pocketbooks may have a more direct impact on political fundraising than the events of Sept. 11.

"It hasn't yet, and it's too soon to say if it will," says Metrick. "It's reasonable to say that in times of an economic downturn we may see a slowing in growth in our organization. We wouldn't be surprised if some of that growth curve slowed down or flattened out a bit, but it's too soon to tell."

"We haven't really seen a slowdown because of the economy but we're concerned about that, and we think it's going to happen," Palmieri says. "We're certainly concerned that it may start affecting our donors if they feel insecure about their economic future."

But, she says, with Democrats preaching the gospel of bipartisanship on international issues, a sluggish economy may help Democratic chances in 2002.

"The one thread in governors races in New Jersey and Virginia is that both had a history of fiscal mismanagement by Republican administrations," Palmieri says. "Democrats are now the party people look to in times of economic turmoil. Democrats are the party people look to for fiscal discipline, for responsibility in managing government. The polls will show that. They still trust Democrats more than the Republicans on the economy."

For their part, Republicans hope that Bush's wartime coattails can carry their candidates to victory. Whoever proves to be right, the polite, Marquis-of-Queensbury-rules period that traditionally follows outbreaks of war is officially over.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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