Are Rudderless Democrats the GOP's Secret Weapon?

Donald Lambro
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Posted: May 17, 2006 10:59 AM

WASHINGTON -- The Democrats' election-year agenda is still a work in progress as party leaders attempt the impossible: to draft a document that appeals to all of its disparate ideological factions.

But the word coming out of the Democrats' inner sanctums is, there's deep disagreement over its contents and core message and a brewing argument over the timing of its release.

Parts of the agenda have been floated piecemeal over the past several months, but they were either boilerplate proposals, like raising the minimum wage, or an attempt to sound tough on national security, but without any specifics on how to end the insurgency in Iraq or set timetables for troop withdrawal, as their large anti-war wing is demanding.

The rest of the agenda being drafted in Democratic backrooms will deal with domestic issues that, once revealed, could alter the dynamics of this election in the GOP's favor.

Last week, NBC's Tim Russert grilled House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on "Meet the Press" about the Democrats' message on taxes and spending.

Pelosi said her party's agenda would call for a "pay as you go" approach that would avoid any "deficit spending."

"So, wait a minute. There's no increase in spending if the Democrats take over Congress?" Russert asked. "No deficit spending, I pledge to you. Pay as you go," she replied.

Russert immediately caught the well-worn euphemism for tax increases in her answer, saying, "If you raise taxes to pay for the new programs ..."

Pelosi: "You put everything on the table, and you decide what are the priorities for the American people."

Translation: The Bush tax cuts, which are responsible for the economic recovery, will be rolled back to pay for the Democrats' lengthening laundry list of new social-welfare spending.

But the Democratic agenda Pelosi and her friends have in mind doesn't end there. If the Democrats take control of the House, they would conduct multiple investigations into the Bush administration -- from Iraq to intelligence to the lobbying scandal -- that could lead to the president's impeachment by the House.

"A Democratic House would launch a series of investigations of the Bush administration," Pelosi told the Washington Post. Among her plans to use the subpoena power to investigate: "Certainly the conduct of the war," she said, along with the weapons-of-mass-destruction justification to topple Saddam Hussein and the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance activities.

Asked how far all this could go and whether it could result in President Bush's impeachment, Pelosi said, "You never know where it leads to."

That set off alarm bells among party strategists who feared that Pelosi's remarks sent the wrong message to voters that a Democratic Congress would be focused on an endless stream of investigations solely to bring down the Bush administration, triggering a bitter political war.

Last week, Pelosi and other party leaders went to great lengths to tone down her remarks. "She was talking about oversight. We are not talking about impeachment or censure. We are just talking about congressional oversight in Congress," said Pelosi's chief spokesman Brendan Daly.

That's not what Pelosi's congressional inquisition sounded like to the impartial ear. It sounded like she was planning on leading her party on a partisan warpath against the administration, and key Democrats warned her privately that is not the kind of agenda that will appeal to independents and swing voters in November.

Right now, "the Democrats do not have a message for swing voters who are going to make the difference in this election," pollster John Zogby told me last week. "There are not enough Democratic voters to give the Democrats a victory without swing voters."

With the Democrats running 12 points ahead of the Republicans in the generic surveys and the GOP's polls scraping bottom, Democrats have "an opportunity to make this election a blowout," Zogby said.

"But if the Democrats don't offer Mr. and Mrs. Middle America something that matters, that means something to them, [the Democrats] can blow a huge opportunity," he said.

House Democratic leadership officials told me last week their long-delayed agenda will be rolled out in June, but Democratic strategist Donna Brazile thinks that would be a huge timing blunder because voters will not be focused on the elections then.

"I don't know if the Democrats get any traction in June when people are focusing on summer vacations and their kids out of school. Wait until they are paying attention in September," Brazile said.

"Our base and the majority of Americans are worried about gas prices, immigration and Iraq. They are not looking for a 20-page document. Put it together for the fall when people are paying attention."

Smart advice for a party that is confused, leaderless and still searching for a message that can appeal to swing voters who usually do not turn out in midterm elections.