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Democrats Weigh Risks of Caution

Times Staff Writer

Are the Democrats ready for their close-up?

With President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress facing bleak approval ratings, many Democrats are increasingly confident that the public is ready to hear the party’s alternative policy ideas as the 2006 campaign heats up.

The question is whether the Democrats have an alternative ready to present.

Party leaders have provided some specifics about how they would deal with national security, energy issues and ethics reform if they recapture one or both chambers of Congress in November. But on many topics, they have provided only broad hints about their direction.

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This cautious strategy is generating intensifying debate within the party.

On one side are those who believe the Democrats must present a sharp alternative to Bush’s direction -- as Republicans did with their “Contract with America” before sweeping into control of Congress in 1994.

“It is a time to move toward offense and toward talking about the big things that we stand for,” said Eli Pariser, executive director of the political action committee associated with liberal MoveOn.org.

On the other side are strategists who fear that offering too many specifics could allow Republicans to shift focus away from public discontent with how they have governed. Those sentiments appear especially strong among Senate Democrats.

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“If you start to [discuss] big government programs ... you open yourself up to criticism in all directions, and there’s no reason for Democrats to do that now,” said one senior Democratic Senate aide, who asked not to be identified when discussing internal party deliberations.

But attempts to minimize the target for Republicans could leave Democrats vulnerable in a different respect. A continued reluctance to detail an agenda, some party strategists say, could allow the Republicans room to define for voters what the priorities of the Democrats are.

Indeed, the Republican National Committee has delivered 18 news releases charging that “the Real Democratic Agenda” amounts to large tax increases, a policy of “cut and run” in Iraq and the impeachment of the president.

Each side in the internal Democratic argument can point to polls supporting its position.

Those who prefer less detail note that as confidence in the Republican Congress has declined, almost all surveys show Democrats leading the GOP when the public is asked which party it trusts to handle the nation’s major problems.

These Democrats believe that developing comprehensive proposals would only ease Republican efforts to shift the election’s focus from a retrospective verdict on Bush’s last two years to a prospective judgment about what Democrats might do with power -- shifting the campaign’s focus from a referendum to a choice, as GOP leaders put it.

Those Democrats who favor a more specific agenda note that many surveys, like an ABC/Washington Post poll this month, show most Americans do not believe the party is offering a clear alternative.

“If you look at the polling data, it’s clear that people lack a sense of what the Democrats stand for,” said Ruy Teixeira, a public opinion analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

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Late last year, Democratic House and Senate members, along with several governors and the Democratic National Committee, listed six broad goals for the party -- including ethics reform, strengthening national security, encouraging independence from foreign oil and expanding access to healthcare.

But that statement did not explain how Democrats might pursue those ends, most of which receive at least rhetorical support from both parties.

House and Senate Democrats offered more detail on ethics when they released a lobbying reform proposal in January. In March, at a campaign-style event, congressional Democrats issued a national security agenda that laid out sweeping goals -- such as shifting more responsibility to Iraqi security forces -- but provided few details of how the party would promote them.

Senate Democrats, acting without House Democrats, called this month for reducing U.S. oil imports by 40% through 2020. That proposal revolved around a requirement for automobile manufacturers to produce more cars capable of running on biofuels such as ethanol.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) recently identified five initiatives she said the party would pass within the first week if it won control of the House.

Those initiatives are raising the minimum wage, rescinding tax breaks for oil companies included in the 2005 energy legislation, revising the Medicare prescription drug bill to allow the government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices, cutting student loan rates and passing the remaining recommendations for improving national security by the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Perhaps just as important, Pelosi told Democratic House members at a closed meeting this month that the party would not pursue impeachment proceedings against Bush.

Democrats are still debating how many more proposals to unveil before November. House and Senate leaders have scheduled another joint statement for June, but it appears less likely to advance sweeping plans than to endorse a list of short-term priorities like the one Pelosi already unveiled.

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The agenda-setting efforts have drawn a mixed response from party activists and operatives.

The campaign manager for one Democratic Senate candidate said he supported the decision to offer a relatively modest national agenda.

“I don’t think there necessarily needs to be a ‘Democratic’ message,” said the campaign manager, who asked not to be identified when discussing political strategy. “The message is pretty easy. The Republicans control everything, and the question to voters is: ‘How is that working out for you?’ ”

But others, from both the party’s liberal and centrist wings, see potential dangers if Democrats don’t provide more clarity on more issues.

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, said he worried that “if we don’t present voters with a coherent definition of the party’s core commitments, they tend to default to negative stereotypes.”

David Sirota, a congressional aide turned liberal commentator, said he feared that failing to synthesize a consensus agenda could haunt Democrats if they regained a narrow majority in the House or Senate.

“There is a very big potential for paralysis in the majority if [Democrats] don’t work out some of their issues now,” he said.

These arguments are likely only the overture for a much larger debate among Democrats about the party’s direction. Indeed, in recent weeks Democratic theorists and strategists have released a flood of books, articles and manifestos aimed at shaping the party agenda and message for the 2008 presidential campaign and beyond.

The torrent includes two books urging Democrats to pursue a more muscular foreign policy: “The Good Fight,” by former New Republic Editor Peter Beinart, and “With All Our Might,” a collection of essays edited by Marshall.

More liberal voices are also weighing in. Sirota’s new book, “Hostile Takeover,” urges the party to embrace public financing of elections and more aggressive challenges of big corporations.

Michael Tomasky, editor of the left-leaning American Prospect, wrote a widely discussed essay in the magazine calling on Democrats to organize their agenda around the theme of promoting “the common good” -- an idea he presented as an alternative to what he termed “the radical individualism of the Bush era” and traditional interest-group liberalism.

Due soon on bookshelves is “The Plan,” which will offer a Democratic domestic and foreign agenda formulated by Bruce Reed, who served as chief domestic policy advisor for President Clinton, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Perhaps the most closely watched entry in this sweepstakes will come from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), widely considered the front-runner for the party’s 2008 presidential nomination. In July, a task force she leads for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council is scheduled to release a paper proposing a new economic-opportunity agenda for the party.

“There is a huge vacuum in the party and the country -- a pent-up demand for answers that we haven’t seen since the early 1990s,” Reed said. “The closer we get to the 2008 campaign ... the more relevant Democratic ideas are.”


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