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A Bush Recession? For the Dems, the Right Weapon at the Wrong Time

It's a hard time to be a hard-charging Democrat. After all, the man derided by Dems as a Presidential pretender just a year ago now wins near-unanimous support for his response to the September 11 attacks. So with the 2002 election season about to start, what's an opposition party to do? How about: change the subject.

Convinced that the floundering economy could eventually become the Republican Party's Achilles' heel, Democratic leaders have been refocusing public attention on Bush's fiscal stewardship and GOP favors for corporate interests. In recent weeks, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has delayed action on an economic stimulus plan to give Dems time to blast the hefty business tax breaks and modest worker assistance backed by Republicans. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) raised the rhetoric several decibels higher on Nov. 29, blaming Bush for the recession and labeling his refusal to spend more on homeland security "unpatriotic."

But their blunt approach carries significant risks as Democrats seek to retain control of the Senate and regain the House. Strategically, their timing is problematic on two levels: With the election 11 months away, it's the public mood next fall--not this holiday season--that matters. Moreover, signs of recovery in some sectors could take the punch out of the Dems' message.

"This is not a debate we want to have right now," warns one high-ranking Democratic operative. "If we get involved in a fight with a popular President, we can only lose." Not only is the strategy suspect, but the Dems' tactics--such as questioning the President's patriotism in the middle of a war--have been downright suicidal. The shrillness of the attack goes against the advice of top strategists like hyperpartisan James Carville, who warned in a Nov. 13 memo that Democrats need to support Bush's wartime efforts and "set a tone that lacks a sharp partisan quality."

Now, Republicans have been able to muster their righteous indignation and change the subject once again--from the economy to Democratic tactics. National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) called Lowey's remarks "shameful" and accused her of trying to "undermine our national unity." With Democrats attempting to regroup, a more conciliatory Daschle on Nov. 27 backed off on demands for an additional $15 billion in homeland security spending. Meanwhile, the DCCC has abandoned a plan to use Bush's name in negative ads and has scaled back a media blitz. Lowey was unavailable for an interview, but DCCC board member Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.) says his party has an obligation to highlight Republican economic priorities. "The public supports the President and supports bipartisanship," Matsui says, "but people are concerned enough about the economy that they want us to talk about it."

TAX MATTERS. Blunders aside, the economy still could be the top Democratic weapon in 2002. Several recent polls show a growing concern about the recession, particularly among swing voters and independents. And Americans are more receptive to Democratic stimulus proposals--such as increased aid for the unemployed, massive government spending for construction projects, and postponing tax relief for the wealthiest--than to a GOP package that tilts heavily toward business. "The importance of the economy to the 2002 elections is hard to overstate at this point," argues analyst Karl Agne of Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling and strategy group.

Maybe so. But as the Dems are learning, playing the economic blame game with a wildly popular wartime President can backfire faster than you can say "rally 'round the flag." Those frosty relations with the Clinton White House seem like ancient history at Microsoft. A month after settling its antitrust case, the Bush Administration has turned to Microsoft for help in homeland defense. Richard A. Clarke, special Presidential adviser for cyberspace security, has picked Microsoft Chief Security Officer Howard Schmidt to help design strategies to protect U.S. computer systems from hack attacks by al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. The just-passed bill funding the Treasury Dept., Postal Service, and White House includes a provision banning federal agencies from collecting personally identifiable information gleaned from any individual's use of a federal Web site without permission. The feds are also barred from buying such info on nongovernment sites. But while Congress wants to shield citizens against government snoops, it has no such qualms when private companies collect the data. Now is not the time to ask the Federal Communications Commission to sell you some unused spectrum. After all, the Defense Dept. controls a large part of the airwaves coveted by the wireless industry, and the generals aren't likely to surrender spectrum space in wartime. But that hasn't stopped the Telecommunications Industry Assn. from taking a new tack. The TIA's new idea: set aside a swath of unused airwaves for emergency government communications around the world.

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