Comment: The Do-Something Senate

There may be some life in the Democrats yet, especially in the Senate. They killed drilling in Alaska. They blocked a wretched judicial nomination. They sidetracked President Bush's outrageous effort to make the tax cut permanent, which would yield endless deficits and spell curtains for decent public services. And the sky didn't fall. They even earned the ultimate encomium: a fatuous lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal headlined, inevitably, "The Do-Nothing Senate."


What we have, at last, is a Do-Something Senate. When Newt Gingrich and company were blocking everything that Bill Clinton proposed, so that they could go to the country and pronounce his presidency a failure, the Journal's editors didn't disparage a Do-Nothing House; they praised Gingrich for saving the Republic.

Meanwhile, Bush's foreign-policy magic is fading (See Harold Meyerson, "Axis of Incompetence," page 18). As an unnamed high administration official was quoted in The New York Times, "This has been a very bad week for us." The failure of Colin Powell's mission on the heels of the failure of Dick Cheney's mission, the fact that Osama bin Laden may have slipped through American fingers, and the possible links between the Tunisia synagogue bombing and al-Qaeda all suggest a foreign-policy gang whose militance is outweighed only by its ineptitude.

But can a newly emboldened Democratic opposition build on its still fragile momentum? Here, again, there is cause for guarded optimism. Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt finally have a coherent story: Though the Democrats generally support the president on the physical security of America's homeland, they differ on every other aspect of America's security.


Good start. The challenge is to make this slogan real. White House strategist Karl Rove is pursuing a very explicit strategy of taking Democratic issues off the table. This means bogus Republican substitutes on everything from Leave No Child Behind to prescription drugs. It's no accident that Rove wants to steal the Democrats' clothes, because public opinion sides with the Democrats on all these issues.


Take, for instance, retirement security. Conservative ideologues want Republican legislators to embrace Social Security privatization as a signature election theme, but GOP representatives and senators are balking. They know a stinker when they see one. Not only is the stock market flat, and Enron the proof of the unreliability of purely private retirement schemes. What's worse, Bush gave away $1.35 trillion that the Democrats wanted to use to safeguard Social Security for the next generation. Republicans are on the defensive, as well they should be. Beyond spotlighting the indispensability of Social Security, Enron dramatized the need to protect workers' 401 (k) plans from corporate greed and to broaden pension coverage generally. But the Republican House has passed legislation, under the guise of "pension-reform," that actually make it easier for corporations to raid those pension funds.


Emboldened Democrats could go to the country with retirement security as a broadly cast issue, identifying Republicans with narrow corporate interests and Democrats with the well being of ordinary people. They could do the same with health security, where the combination of the HMO squeeze and federal budget cuts in Medicare and Medicaid is fueling a combined doctor/patient revolt. The Republicans, as shills for the HMOs and the drug companies, are very vulnerable here. This is an issue that hits people where they live. Ditto education, where Bush gave us the testing but not the resources.


All of this costs money. To make their opposition program real, Democrats will have to roll back Bush's tax cut -- not frontally, but by matching dubious cuts with popular outlays. Freezing the estate-tax cut would pay for prescription-drug coverage. As Barney Frank memorably put it, "We are being asked to show more respect for older people who are dead and rich than for older people who are still alive and not wealthy."


At the recent national conference of Campaign for America's Future, pollster Stan Greenberg demonstrated that most economic issues cut in our direction. The Campaign will be working closely with the Economic Policy Institute and the Prospect to demonstrate that progressive pocketbook issues are not only the right thing to do, they're smart politics.

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