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The Bad News for Big Labor: Blue Collars Love This Blueblood

Next to, maybe, Baath Party headquarters in downtown Baghdad, you could hardly find more gloom these days about the powerful Presidency of George W. Bush than at 815 16th Street NW in Washington, home of the AFL-CIO.

It's not just because prospects for puncturing the GOP's electoral bubble look so remote. Big Labor is wringing its hands because the wartime President retains surprising strength among working-class voters, even in the unsettling aftermath of the Iraq invasion. With so many Republican seats secure on Capitol Hill, AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman says that labor faces "a very heavy lift" to displace GOP majorities in Congress in 2004. To make matters worse, the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law prohibits unions from pouring tens of millions of dollars in soft money into Democratic coffers, as they have done for years. And a substitute program to mobilize labor voters has been plagued by factionalism and mass resignations.

Labor's basic problem: It's up against a plain-spoken, tough-guy President who commands the affection of blue-collar workers. Democratic consultant Brian Lunde, an unabashed Bush admirer, compares the President's rank-and-file support to that of Ronald Reagan, who captured a six-pack bloc dubbed Reagan Democrats. "Once in a while, strong leadership and personal character traits can trump interest-group issues checklists," says Lunde.

Worried union leaders want to make sure that this flirtation with the GOP remains a fleeting infatuation. Otherwise, the political consequences could be devastating for Democrats. If Bush makes major inroads among working-class voters in 2004, it could tip the balance in swing states throughout the industrial heartland that Al Gore carried in 2000. Among them: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Polls show the President riding a wave of blue-collar popularity, particularly among whites. In Michigan, Bush receives a 63% favorable rating from white unionists and 59% from labor women, according to a May 18-22 EPIC/MRA poll. Among the families of white union members, the President leads an unnamed Democrat by 56% to 32%. Many working stiffs "still like Bush even if they have profound disagreements on [economic] policy," says Catholic University political scientist John Kenneth White. "It's values, stupid, and Democrats still don't get it."

Maybe, but top AFL-CIO officials do. The bottom line, labor leaders warn, is that Democrats must be seen as strong on defense and terrorism if they want to compete for industrial union votes. "People are concerned about security," says AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. "And that has to be an important part of the debate if we want to get the attention of people we want to impress."

Union officials are looking for a Democrat who can pass the toughness test -- and then relentlessly shift the focus to economic and labor issues. They want to paint Bush as the most anti-union President since, well, Ronald Reagan. Among the charges: Bush is using national defense as a ruse to thwart unions at the Homeland Security Dept., the Justice Dept., and the Pentagon. And they'll hammer the President for trying to privatize hundreds of thousands of federal jobs and weaken workplace safety. With Bush's economic stewardship getting positive marks from only 27% of union members in the EPIC/MRA poll, leaders will stress the nosedive in manufacturing jobs and the three Bush tax cuts that, Sweeney says, "leave no CEO behind."

Even if the economy slowly improves, labor leaders will argue that reemployment is lagging amid productivity-driven gains. With Bush riding high, that looks like a shaky strategy. But it's the only one they've got. Bush is planning to accept public money for the 2004 general election after bypassing federal matching funds and raising some $200 million for his uncontested primary. But taxpayer Bush isn't helping candidate Bush: He intentionally skipped the box on his 1040 giving $3 to the campaign fund. "The President is in pretty good company with a number of American people who do not check that box," says press secretary Ari Fleischer, who notes that just 1 in 12 taxpayers donates. In the absence of Al Gore, no Democratic Presidential candidate has emerged as the favorite of high-tech execs. Now, Representative Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), long identified with the Old Economy, is catering to the New Economy crowd by backing a bill to stall accounting rules that would force companies to deduct stock-option expenses from earnings. Gephardt is the first to sign on to the bill, although rival Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) is a longtime foe of expensing stock options. The House and Senate are aiming to pass a new Medicare drug benefit that is supposed to cost no more than $400 billion over 10 years. But the bills working their way through Congress will actually be much more expensive once they are fully effective. Under the Senate plan, the cost through 2005 is only about $2 billion a year. But when the full insurance plan kicks in, starting in 2006, the annual price tag skyrockets to $50 billion by 2010 and almost $70 billion by 2013.

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