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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 13, 2002
WASHINGTON -- The Democrats are so desperate to change the political debate before the November elections from war with Iraq to domestic issues that they rolled over and gave President Bush a blank check payable in American blood, another Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
As the Senate opened debate on a war resolution last week, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., known more as a champion of federal pork than as an antiwar leader, couldn't hide his disgust. "Here we are today," the senator said. "We have rubber spines, rubber legs, and we do not have backbones."
Byrd was talking about the Democrats' rush to give the president a war resolution, but he might as well have been talking about their fear of standing up to the president on tax cuts and any number of domestic issues. It's not clear why the Democrats are so eager to change the subject from war to the economy, for they have little or nothing to offer voters. Until the election passes, Democrats are avoiding politically risky choices. They don't have the political courage to take on Bush on his fiscal and economic policies, much less a war with Iraq.
Maybe it really doesn't matter which party winds up controlling Congress. I know where the Republicans stand on issues, but I'm no longer sure what the Democrats stand for -- except for abortion rights, unions and trial lawyers.
For example, after the Columbine school massacre, Democrats were lined up in the House and the Senate to call for new gun-control legislation. But now, with a mad sniper killing people at random in Washington's suburbs, Democrats are hiding under the table. You have not heard them proposing new gun-control laws that might make it easier for police to trace guns to maniac killers. The reason: Democrats have decided their support of gun-control legislation cost their party the 2000 presidential election. So the word has gone out to Democrats: Gun control is a loser; don't touch it.
In Florida, gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride is among the Democrats running for cover on gun control. Contrary to what he told the St. Petersburg Times earlier this year, he now is insisting that he doesn't support a law to close the gun-show loophole. At the beginning of his campaign, McBride told me that he would rather lose than compromise his principles.
The party's national leaders are stuck in their own defensive crouch. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle keeps blaming the gloomy economy and the return to budget deficits on Bush's tax cuts. But he has yet to offer a coherent alternative that would require Democratic senators to cast politically unpopular votes. He refuses to propose rescinding or postponing the tax cuts and instead pleads with the president to change course.
The Senate, where Democrats hold a one-vote majority, still hasn't passed any of the 13 budget bills to fund the government in the new fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Instead, the government is operating on stopgap spending measures. Budget votes would mean that Democrats would have to make some tough choices in an election year, choosing between war and prescription drugs, between Pentagon weapons and education.
The party's leading presidential aspirants are as spineless as its congressional leaders. A few days after he ripped into Bush's Iraq policy, Al Gore, who wants a rematch with the man who barely defeated him in 2000, attacked the president's economic record. Polls say most voters are more concerned with the economy than with Saddam Hussein, but the former vice president offered no real alternative to the president's economic policy, which he said is "failing us."
Most Americans didn't need Gore to tell them what they already know. If the Bush policy is failing us, as Gore says, then why don't the Democrats put forward their own economic policy? Like Daschle, Gore blamed Bush's tax cuts for the nation's economic slump and budget deficits. But also like the Senate majority leader, Gore stopped short of calling for a repeal of Bush's tax cuts, especially the big ones that have yet to be implemented. Last year's tax cut -- the one first proposed by Democrats and the fairest -- cannot be blamed for the current economic uncertainty. In fact, after the shocks of 9/11 and corporate scandals, it provided the short-term stimulus the economy needed. It's the tax cuts yet to kick in that will do the most damage -- the ones that will disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans.
If Democrats really believe Bush's tax cuts are a threat to the economy and to new investments in education and health care, why don't they step forward and force the issue? Is there no issue more important than winning an election?
It may be true, as Daschle says, that Senate Democrats alone cannot reverse Bush's tax policy. After all, 12 Democrats voted for the tax cuts. But that does not excuse Daschle's failure to bring the issue to the forefront of this election by offering a Democratic alternative. A political party that is too craven to stand on principle doesn't deserve the power to govern.
Byrd had it right -- rubber spines, rubber legs and no backbone.