Wide philosophical differences but a close political question

Posted: Jan 22, 2004 12:00 AM

The week has provided sharp contrasts in the points of view offered by the nation's two principal parties. On Monday, the Democratic caucuses in Iowa; on Tuesday, the president's State of the Union address.

After six months leading the pack, Howard Dean wound up third in Iowa. He suffered the perils of the front-runner - overestimation, overexposure and late-hour recognition of his insufferable personality and maniacal views. In defeat, his grotesque delivery of no-quarter remarks recalled nothing so much as Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien's fellowship, defiantly coveting the one ring of power - so affecting had been his taste of it.

John Edwards made his way to second place on the basis of his looks, his classism and his trial-lawyer silver tongue. John Kerry, the richest in the Democratic pack, made his way to the front via a carefully cultivated image of soporific steadiness perhaps aided by caucusers' concerns about what the Bush meat-slicer might do to Deaniac baloney.

Following Iowa, the Democratic contest moved on to New Hampshire, where polls are showing the only moderate in the Democratic horde - Joe Lieberman - at a paltry 5 percent. Tuesday ended with two Democratic smoothies ripping the State of the Union as something more fitting for Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye than for this or any president of the United States.

It wasn't.

The president surprisingly continues to approach eloquence. He spoke movingly of the nation's military, of U.S. achievement and resolve in Iraq, of his determination - through "a forward strategy of freedom" - to make liberty and democracy possible throughout the Arab world. With its many allies, he said, "this great Republic will lead the cause of freedom."

He spoke of an economy "strong and growing stronger": Americans took (dollars saved from lowered taxes) and put them to work, driving this economy forward. The pace of economic growth in the third quarter of 2003 was the fastest in nearly 20 years. New home construction: the highest in almost 20 years. Homeownership rates: the highest ever. Manufacturing activity is increasing. Inflation is low. Interest rates are low. Exports are growing. Productivity is high. And jobs are on the rise.

And he spoke of domestic policy gains and initiatives, past and future - in education; immigration (a temporary-worker program); health care, health insurance and health savings accounts; drug prevention (with parents deeply involved "to help children make right choices"); a prisoner re-entry initiative in America, "the land of the second chance"; and, building on the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act signed by President Clinton, if necessary a constitutional amendment "to defend the sanctity of marriage" as "the union of a man and a woman."

Nothing extreme there. Yet after the initial greeting of the president, the Democrats - well, here is New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg in Wednesday's editions: Starkly contrasting with Republican behavior, "Democrats remained seated, hands in their laps, in stoic silence. And so it went for much of the speech."

Ted Kennedy shook his head no in response to nearly every stipulated Bush achievement or initiative. Hillary grimaced in dismay. Democratic sophomores refused to applaud for the man many refuse to accept as president. They behaved despicably - as despicably as the jeerers and booers of Bush as he visited the Atlanta tomb of Martin Luther King Jr., as despicably as Dean in his Bilbo reprise.

These people are petulant and extreme. Excepting Lieberman, who among them disagrees with the distinguished Congressman Dennis Kucinich in his own state of the union address in New Hampshire - when he proclaimed the nation "in a perilous condition due to fear, war, tax cuts to wealthy Americans, and trade policies leading to widespread unemployment"?

Indeed, who among them disagrees with Ted Kennedy, who a week ago accused President Bush of removing Saddam via war for purely political reasons - to influence the 2002 and 2004 elections? Even Kerry and Edwards, Nos. 1 and 2 in Iowa, voted against authorizing $87 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Bush and the Democrats symbolize two deeply contrasting views. One is positive, realistic and determined "to do what it takes for what is right." The other is negative and cowering - based on more taxes and more federal solutions at home, and on cutting and running abroad.

Iowa is notoriously a poor predictor of success in the nominating process or the general election beyond; the New Hampshire primary boasts a far more accurate record. Yet the Democratic nominee likely won't be Lieberman, and ideologically most of the rest are mostly the same: Dean, Kerry, Edwards and Clark vary only in tone.

The week's most troubling datum may be the Washington Post/ABC News poll (conducted Jan. 15 to 18) showing President Bush - with 60 percent approval ratings - running in a statistical dead-heat with any no-name Democrat. Which is to say: Despite a yawning ideological chasm between most Republicans and most Democrats, the electorate remains almost equally divided; wide philosophical differences but a close political question. Whoever carries the Democratic banner (will it be a Kerry-Edwards ticket?), the contest - with so profoundly much at stake - may go down to the wire again.