The Republican Con Game

With the economy softening and corporate scandals continuing to unfold, November's elections should spell good news for the opposition party. But Democrats are making only marginal headway.

One reason is that Republicans have gotten so good at stealing the atmospherics of Democratic themes (though rarely the substance). Master Republican strategist Karl Rove, the chief White House political adviser, has encouraged GOP candidates to blur partisan differences, especially where Democrats have the more popular position.

Also, a lot of the issues are fairly complex. So if a Republican candidate insists that she, too, favors a crackdown on corporate crooks, or legislation to safeguard pensions, or a prescription drug program, few voters have the attention span to pursue the details.

Republicans are also running away from positions they've espoused in the past, such as privatization of Social Security (which no longer looks like a political winner in a falling stock market). For example, in the very close South Dakota Senate contest, each candidate is accusing the other of being soft on Social Security privatization.

The Republican, U.S. Rep. John Thune, has TV ads contending that his Democratic opponent, Sen. Tim Johnson, is a supporter of "privatizing" Social Security. You'd have to be a real policy wonk to know that in the mid-1990s, some Democrats, including Johnson, supported allowing a portion of the system's surplus to be invested in stocks and bonds but that no individual retiree would be at risk of loss.

Republicans, by contrast, have advocated individual accounts leaving individuals exposed to the risks of market downturns. Thune voted to set up a commission whose specific mandate was to come up with a way to convert part of Social Security to individual accounts.

Another example is the bill passed by the Republican House last April, supposedly to protect workers' 401(k) pension plans from Enron-style wipeouts. How many voters know or care that the Republican bill actually weakens existing protections in two key respects?

The GOP measure removes a provision in current law requiring less-well-paid employees to get the same basic pension options and protections as more highly paid ones. And it introduces new conflicts of interest by allowing the same company that runs the plan for the employer to peddle products to employees.

The Senate leadership's draft bill does not contain these loopholes. But even the press finds these telling details almost as opaque as many voters do. The New York Times, in a recent roundup of key legislative issues facing Congress, explained only that ''The House approved a bill in April that its authors said would help safeguard 401(k) retirement plans after the Enron scandal. The Senate Democratic leadership is developing a proposal that it says would go further.'' Either the editors decided that reporting the actual differences in the two bills was not worth the space or the reporter concluded that a comparison, much less some conclusions, would violate journalistic objectivity.

The Democrats are also sitting ducks for this Republican blurring strategy because the differences between Democratic approaches and their Republican imitations often aren't striking enough to generate clear distinctions.

The Democrats, for example, have criticized Bush's fiscally disastrous $1.35 trillion tax cut, but they haven't had the nerve to demand its repeal. The Democratic approach to prescription drug coverage for senior citizens would provide a lot more coverage than the Republican version. But it doesn't squarely face the cost crisis, and it still leaves middle-class people paying a lot out of pocket.

A related problem is that some Democrats feed at the same corporate trough as Republicans. So the more conservative of Democrats want to go only so far in their reforms.

For example, the creative accounting abuses involving stock options to corporate executives have now been so thoroughly documented that dozens of corporations have voluntarily changed their accounting systems to count options as ordinary expenses. But when Democratic Sen. Carl Levin proposed to include such a requirement in reform legislation, many of his Democratic colleagues deserted him.

Once, Democrats had enough nerve and conviction that you didn't need a magnifying glass to tell the difference between Democratic and Republican positions. And the GOP had enough self-respect that it didn't camouflage its proposals as just like Democratic ones.

If ever there was a corporate-dominated economy and a corporate-dominated administration, it is this election year. Now that the seamier side of corporate America is facing exposure, the Republicans should face severe political embarrassment. But whether they actually will is mainly up to the Democrats.

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