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Democrats Are Lost in the Shuffle While GOP Holds All the Cards

Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times' website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.

On almost every major question in Washington today, the choice isn’t whether to move in a Republican or Democratic direction, but how far in a Republican direction to move.

This is the grim reality of political life for Democrats at a time when the GOP controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.

This situation creates obvious problems for Democrats. But it’s also produced surprising risks for Republicans, measured in skidding approval ratings for President Bush and Congress.

The dynamic is more complex than it might seem.

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From Social Security, to intervention in the sad case of Terri Schiavo, to the appointment of conservative federal judges, every major debate positions the parties in the same way: Republicans are on offense, Democrats on defense.

The debate on the federal budget isn’t about whether to raise taxes to reduce the deficit, it’s over how much more to cut taxes. Washington isn’t examining how to expand coverage for those without health insurance, but whether to cut the Medicaid program that provides the central strand in our society’s safety net.

Democrats are furiously laboring to prevent Bush from carving out private investment accounts from Social Security, but even if they succeed -- which increasingly appears likely -- they only will have preserved the status quo. Because Republicans embraced the cause of Schiavo’s parents, her case commanded public attention for weeks, while hardly anyone suggested the mass school shooting in Red Lake, Minn., deserved a policy response.

It’s like watching a baseball game where one team is always at bat, or a basketball game where one team always has the ball. The best Democrats can do is hold down the Republican score; the Democrats have found virtually no opportunities to advance their own ideas or to steer the discussion onto their strongest terrain.

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Former Democratic presidential candidate and former Sen. Bill Bradley last week suggested that the party faced this problem because it had not developed enough compelling ideas.

There’s some truth to that; congressional Democrats, for instance, have made a tactical decision not to offer an alternative to Bush’s Social Security initiative.

But a lack of ideas isn’t the Democrats’ largest problem. Although the party hasn’t embraced an alternative Social Security proposal, some of its leading thinkers, such as Gene Sperling and Peter Orszag, have put serious alternatives on the table. On healthcare, Democratic thinkers have generated innovative plans to reduce malpractice claims, expand access and control costs.

The Democrats’ biggest problem is that they don’t have a viable means to spotlight or forge a party consensus behind these ideas. Unless they can recruit Republican defectors, Democrats can’t force the serious legislative debate on their initiatives that would attract news coverage and public attention.

Democrats simply have failed to woo enough Republicans to create such opportunities. That’s meant congressional Democrats have been able to express their beliefs almost solely by blocking Bush proposals. As a party, they have had few opportunities to explain what they are for, only what they are against.

That pattern exposes Democrats to substantive and political risks. The substantive danger is that Republicans will push through policies that undermine core Democratic beliefs (like preserving Social Security as a universal safety net) or weaken Democratic constituencies (like trial lawyers squeezed by GOP changes to tort law), or both.

The most immediate political danger is that Republicans can portray Democrats as obstructionists, a dangerous label in the “red” Bush states. The larger problem is that the Democrats’ inability to sustain attention on their ideas encourages a public sense that they have none. In the latest poll from Democracy Corps, a project of leading Democratic consultants, Republicans held a crushing 30-percentage-point advantage when voters were asked which party knows what it stands for.

That’s one measure of the Republican advantage in defining the debate. Yet that advantage creates its own risks. Politicians are usually most successful when they can contrast themselves with an opponent. President Clinton made himself look more centrist by effectively portraying congressional Republicans as extreme. Bush appeared stronger by defining Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as indecisive in last year’s White House race.

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The danger for the GOP is that the political dialogue is being structured less as a choice between Republican and Democratic ideas than as a referendum on Republican ideas alone. And some of those aren’t faring so well.

An overwhelming majority of Americans opposed congressional and White House intervention in the Schiavo case; Bush’s Social Security plan is lagging in the polls too. And it’s difficult to imagine that many Americans outside the GOP’s conservative base applauded House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) fevered rant against the courts last week following Schiavo’s death.

Republican strategists like Stephen Moore, president of the Free Enterprise Fund, believe that even with these near-term reversals, the central focus on Republican ideas will benefit the party over time. “In the long term, this is the way you win in politics,” he says. “You plant the seeds of your ideas, and you effectively blockade the other side from advancing any of its ideas.”

Conversely, Democratic thinkers like veteran pollster Stanley B. Greenberg believe Republicans are planting the seeds for a voter backlash by overreaching. “Democrats have an opportunity in pushing off this agenda, which may seem extreme to many,” he says.

Only future elections will settle that debate. But both analyses point to the same conclusion: The fate of both parties hangs mostly on the public’s verdict about Republican ideas.


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