Will Democrats muff their golden chance?

Published October 1, 2006

Most polls suggest the Republicans may be headed for a good thrashing in the November elections because of the mess they've made at home and abroad. Of course, Democrats have been known to blow golden political opportunities before and they could do so again this year. If Democrats fail to regain control of one or both houses of Congress, it will be because they so far have offered little more than criticism of the war in Iraq and Republican excesses in Congress. With the election little over a month away, voters are still waiting for Democrats to say exactly what they would do differently, especially on Iraq and the anti-terrorism front.

In the past year, congressional Democrats have unveiled their "New Direction for America" agenda. They list as their priorities student loans, health care, Medicare, Social Security and other traditional Democratic issues. But their agenda has one glaring omission - not a word on Iraq, the overriding concern of most Americans. People are ready for a change in Washington, and they're hungry for new ideas. But it's not clear what Democratic deliverance from Republican rule would bring.

Democrats are hoping that they can prevail in November by just hammering Bush on Iraq without offering an alternative national security policy that says how they would protect America from terrorists in the post-9/11 world. On this issue they sound an uncertain trumpet, and this could be one reason why President Bush has seen a bounce in his approval rating in recent polls. Bush has been hammering "cut and run" Democrats as soft on terrorism in recent weeks, and he appears to be getting away with it because of the lack of a coherent Democratic counterattack.

It's not clear exactly what Democrats would do differently in Iraq if they were back in power. Some, like Sen. John Kerry, have called for a withdrawal timetable that would pull U.S. troops out by next July. Others, like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, oppose setting a deadline for withdrawal. And a few moderate Democrats are calling for a change in the way we are conducting the war before giving up on Iraq. About the only thing Democrats agree on is that Bush's disastrous policy has left the country with only lousy options in Iraq.

If Democrats are dithering on what to do about Iraq, they are regressing to some of their worst instincts on domestic issues. If you listen to their election-year rhetoric, you realize how far Democrats have strayed from the economic centrism of Bill Clinton's presidency keyed to the realities of globalization.

The Economist, a London-based magazine that keeps a perceptive eye on America, recently took note of how Democrats are reverting to their old populist ways.

It wrote: "As they rail against America's growing income inequality and the stagnation of many workers' wages, the Democrats have tilted clearly to the left. Gone is the firm defense of globalization. In its place is a new populism, based on bashing business, boosting the unions and meddling in the markets. The party's bigwigs attend anti-Wal-Mart rallies and lambast the company - America's biggest retailer and private employer - for failing to provide adequate health care or recognize unions. Virtually every Democrat in Congress wants new laws to make union organizing easier."

Instead of just railing against big business and economic inequality, the magazine said, Democrats should throw their political weight behind rewriting the tax code to redistribute income. To their credit, they have opposed Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and have recently pushed to restore several popular tax cuts that expired nine months ago, including federal tax deductions for student tuition and expenses and for state and local sales taxes. Their efforts stalled when Republicans insisted that repeal of the estate tax had to be part of the package.

Democrats also have made a long overdue increase in the minimum wage a legislative priority, but so far have failed to overcome Republican obstruction. Some wonder why they haven't pressed just as hard to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which would do more for the working poor than a higher minimum wage.

Okay, so Democrats are not showing voters much in this election year. I wish they could muster more political courage and engage in more intellectually honest debates on the problems the nation is facing at home and abroad. But on Election Day, Democrats, sad as they are, offer voters their only way to break the Republican power monopoly in Washington that has done so much damage to our country.