Donald Lambro

Then there is growing angst among the GOP's conservative activists and policy strategists who see their party adrift on key domestic issues that they fear will work in the Democrats favor next year -- like health care.

As Bush prepared Friday to veto the Democrats' $35 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), a group of policy analysts from the conservative Heritage Foundation were meeting with GOP officials on Capitol Hill, pleading with them to change tactics.

The SCHIP expansion would grow the number of middle-class kids who would be eligible for health insurance when millions of poorer kids still go uncovered. "Indeed, even as the Census Bureau was reporting that 5.7 million SCHIP-eligible children remain uninsured, liberal governors and their Capitol Hill allies were pressing to make SCHIP coverage available to children in middle-class homes, the vast majority of whom already are covered under their private plans," says Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation.

But that argument was all but lost in the smoke and fire of last week's political battle, as Democrats flogged Republicans for turning their backs on sick children without insurance coverage. Sen. Clinton charged that Bush had launched "a sneak attack on America's children."

What Republicans needed was a clear, more appealing alternative to the plan they opposed. "You can't beat something with nothing," Heritage officials argued in the closed-door congressional meeting.

"Conservative lawmakers should rally around an alternative that enables the working poor to own their own coverage and not depend on the inferior coverage that comes with programs such as SCHIP," Franc said in a strategy critique circulated on Capitol Hill.

But Republicans apparently had not thought through the health-care fight they triggered in such strategically political terms. The Democrats did, and they appear to have the high ground in the debate, while Republicans are made to look anti-children.

"Democrats are going to pound Republicans on this in the campaign," a disgusted Heritage official told me. "Sometimes, I think (Republicans) deserve to lose." Successful legislative battles are the result of good policymaking and sophisticated political calculation. In the fight over SCHIP, the Republicans have neither.

Is it any wonder that Republicans ended last week feeling so gloomy about their prospects in the coming year?

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.