Memo to the Democrats. (Comment)

By Nichols, John | The Nation, January 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

Memo to the Democrats. (Comment)


Nichols, John, The Nation


If Congressional Democrats want to be more than George W. Bush's punching bag in 2003--and in the critical election year of 2004--they must learn the difference between ambition and opposition. In 2002 Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt opted for ambition, mispositioning themselves for presidential runs by steering clear of fights with the Bush Administration on Iraq, civil liberties and the economy. By sacrificing opportunities to undermine and perhaps even upset the GOP momentum, they rendered Democrats irrelevant, and voters responded accordingly.

Daschle got the hint and folded his presidential bid, but with Gephardt and at least a half-dozen other Senate Democrats exploring 2004 presidential candidacies, 2003 will feature plenty of Capitol Hill showboating. But the proper calculation for a presidential campaign is not necessarily the proper calculation for effective legislative opposition. Indeed, if Democrats want to position their party for electoral success in the future, they'll have to recognize that their party's future will be decided by how aggressively they oppose a popular yet vulnerable President. To get it right, Democrats have to approach the 108th Congress a lot more strategically than they did the dismal 107th. To wit, they must:

[section] Get back to economic basics. Since Bush became President, 1.8 million manufacturing jobs have been lost, unemployment has soared and confidence in the economy has plummeted. New House minority leader Nancy Pelosi proved her worth by filleting the Administration for allowing 800,000 families to lose unemployment benefits during the holiday season. Bush aides were so rattled they included a tepid extension of benefits in the President's "jobs and growth" plan. Democrats should hold out for better benefits and mount a fierce fight against the plan's call for eliminating taxes on dividends and speeding up income-tax cuts for the rich. Some Democrats will shudder when the President accuses the party of engaging in "class warfare." But smart Democrats will counter by echoing Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders's line: "The Republicans started waging a class war on working-class and middle-class Americans on January 20, 2001. All we are doing is fighting back on behalf of the victims of Administration policies."

[section] Stop avoiding issues of war and peace. While the majority of Democrats in Congress opposed last fall's vote to hand Bush a blank check to wage war on Iraq, the party has no coherent stance regarding Iraq, North Korea or the war on terrorism. Instead of letting the agenda be set by Administration apologists like Daschle and Joe Lieberman--another presidential hopeful--senior Senate Democrats like Bob Graham, Dan Inouye and Carl Levin, all foes of the Iraq resolution, should be encouraged to fashion a critique that exposes the true costs of imperial ambitions (which empty the domestic treasury into the Defense Department trough), advance a pragmatic policy that supports containment rather than confrontation and position their party on the side of the multilateral approaches to foreign policy that polls show Americans favor.

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