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Right Field

Off Year

By Russ Smith | Posted 5/18/2005

Democrats across the nation are cautiously optimistic these days, cheered by the perception that the Bush administration is floundering in Washington, unable to coerce the Republican-controlled Congress to rally behind the president and enact at least part of his ambitious legislative agenda before next year’s midterm elections.

And the news supposedly only gets worse for the White House. Social Security reform, according to Bush’s opponents, is an albatross that will doom Republicans in 2006. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, even if he’s not indicted, is a broken man who may not win re-election in his home district. Violence has escalated once again in Iraq, proving that the war is morally bankrupt and sure to intensify the rest of the world’s disdain for the United States. Bush’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, may or may not be confirmed by the Senate because he’s an arrogant bully who can’t get along with subordinates, much less Kofi Annan. Polls show that George W. Bush has the worst approval ratings for a second-term president in memory. Finally, Democratic leaders are convinced that Americans will rebel against the GOP’s upcoming attempt to kill the filibuster on judicial choices.

Even William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, wrote in the May 23 issue that the president is in a funk, one that can only be remedied by a vigorous fight in the Senate, day after day, on the merits of Bolton’s nomination. Kristol also claims Social Security is DOA and suggests forestalling the filibuster fight and getting right to Bolton, believing that Republican senators like Norm Coleman, John McCain, and presidential hopeful George Allen will shred the charges against a man who’s been confirmed by the Senate for other government positions. Kristol says: “[A debate on Bolton] will prove a valuable tonic for a White House and a Republican Congress that needs a pick-me-up—and it will produce a result that will be good for the country.”

I doubt partisan Democrats will agree with Kristol’s closing civics lesson—there’s no Bush victory they consider a “good” result for the country—but they’re probably delighted by his nervous tone.

Kristol’s one of the pre-eminent conservative intellectuals in Washington. Still, as he’s wont to do quarterly, he is close to pushing the panic button.

There are two enormous advantages that Bush has over the Democrats in the coming six months, and they’re not often discussed by a media that’s caught up in the battles of day. One, all this controversy (real or ginned-up) is happening in an off-election year; 18 months from now, most of the current tugs of war will be resolved one way or the other. As usually happens, both sides will claim victory and then go campaign.

Two, if there’s a charismatic Democrat who can articulate the party’s position to Americans at large, he or she is taking a long vacation. You can argue with the details of Bush’s dogged determination to tackle the looming Social Security crisis, but a decade from now he’ll be remembered as a president who had the guts to present the problem that the permanent government in D.C. wants to pretend doesn’t exist. There hasn’t been a single Democrat, with the exception last week of Florida’s Rep. Robert Wexler, who’s even offered an opinion on Social Security other than it’s a sacred legacy of FDR that can’t be tampered with. Wexler, whose plan includes tax increases and no raise in the retirement age, was chastised by party leaders for breaking ranks: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s spokesman told the Los Angeles Times that Wexler is “a party of one on this.”

Reid is unlikely to lead his party to electoral success. On May 6, speaking to a high school civics class in Las Vegas, the Nevadan called Bush “a loser” who’s “driving this country into bankruptcy.” Just hours later, Reid called Bush strategist Karl Rove to apologize for his language. Several days later, however, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Reid told reporters he wasn’t backing down from his comments, reiterating that the administration has “done a very, very bad job for this nation and the world.”

Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, also forgetting that Bush is personally popular, said at a Massachusetts convention that DeLay “ought to go back to Houston where he can serve his jail sentence,” ignoring the inconvenient fact that the majority leader hasn’t been charged with a crime.

The 2008 Democratic presidential nomination has nearly been ceded to Hillary Clinton, so wouldn’t it make sense for the New York senator to abandon her re-election plans for next year and campaign full-time for Democrats in the midterms? This would elevate Clinton to de facto national leader of the party and give her the freedom (accompanied by an eager media, both liberal and conservative) to visit every exurb, church, farm, and city in the country, making the case for political change.

If you’re a Democrat, whom would you rather see at campaign rallies, parrying against Bush next year, Reid or Clinton?

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