Democrats fail to grab attention

Possibility of war, other world events dominate headlines, leave party in shadows

Posted: Sunday, February 09, 2003

WASHINGTON -- These are trying times for Democrats, especially those seeking their party's presidential nomination in 2004. No matter how hard they try to grab attention, their voic-es are being drowned out by the thunder of war drums and other events that have let President Bush shape and dominate the national agenda.

Even their aggressive criticism of Bush's red-tape heavy $2.23 trillion budget was eclipsed last week by Iraq and the space shuttle disaster. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell's forceful presentation at the United Nations subdued even the harshest administration critics.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who had accused Bush of ''blustering unilateralism,'' acknowledged that Powell's case against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was ''real and compelling.''

Other Democrats in Congress seeking the nomination -- Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina -- also voiced support.

Powell's words were all the more frustrating for Democrats because he has long been considered the administration's most prominent dove, echoing many of their own war concerns, but from within the Cabinet.

Top Democrats insist their angst is temporary, citing polls showing Bush's approval rating on a downward path, particularly on the economy, while war skepticism grows.

Americans can process ''more than one thing at a time,'' Lieberman said, suggesting job security and other economic concerns will resurface as potent election issues.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, another Democratic presidential hopeful, suggested Iraq will not be an issue by the 2004 elections.

''The war is either going to be over -- or we're not going to be in one by then,'' he said.

Still, many Democrats admit they are frustrated and lack a platform in the Republican-led Congress.

Furthermore, homeland security and the fight on terrorism will be a factor in the 2004 elections, regardless of what happens in Iraq or to the economy. And that should work to Bush's advantage.

''The truth is, incumbent presidents to a great extent create their own fate,'' said Democratic pollster and consultant Mark Mellman. ''Democrats are looking at the realities here.''

Even so, Mellman said, ''Democrats think Bush has made some serious mistakes at the policy level that are going to come back to haunt him politically.''

After all, Bush's father saw his popularity soar after the 1991 Persian Gulf War only to plummet in a recession that clearly influenced the 1992 elections. Many Democrats suggest -- and hope -- that history might repeat itself.

''Bush might get some temporary cover here,'' said former Democratic National Committee Chair Don Fowler. ''But his devastating policies on working families in America, his tax cuts which are a sop to the rich, are going to come home to roost.''

The president's new budget calls for hefty increases in defense and homeland-security spending and $1.3 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years, while squeezing social programs and projecting a $307 billion deficit.

But in a week dominated by the space shuttle disaster and Powell's U.N. speech, ''the budget got kind of lost,'' said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. ''Normally, you'd expect the Democrats to be scoring a lot of points and they're trying. But nobody is paying any attention. Control is out of their hands and in Bush's hands.''

Al From, founder and chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said Bush's dominance of current events will not last.

''That's just a temporary thing. When I look at the underlying numbers for Bush, they have not been on a good trajectory for him,'' he said.

Bush's approval ratings have slid into the 50s from the 90s right after the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush and his party still maintain a substantial lead over Democrats when Americans are asked who can do a better job at protecting national security.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., a former aide to President Clinton, suggested Democratic criticism helped persuade Bush to seek greater U.N. participation on Iraq. ''We've had an impact on the debate,'' Emanuel said.

''The issues of our security, whether it's Iraq or North Korea, are not Democrat or Republican issues, they're American issues, and I think our concerns and our values have been heard on that.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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