Democrats Should Offer Positive Vision, Not Just Bash Bush

Posted July 30, 2003 at 3:12pm

Whether or not Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) runs for president — and I hope he does — he’s got something to teach the other Democratic candidates about how to criticize President Bush. [IMGCAP(1)]

His approach was on display at the Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday when he blasted the Bush administration for not telling the country what the post-war reconstruction of Iraq would cost.

Events have proved, Biden said, that the administration failed to adequately prepare for the post-war aftermath. Biden actually was among the first to warn about that ahead of time. Now it’s a standard Democratic mantra.

“I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again,” Biden said in an impassioned closing statement at the hearing. That remark alone distinguishes him from Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), presidential candidates now fudging on their previous support for the war.

Biden’s main argument was that Bush “has to … prepare the American people for what is expected of them. It’s going to be tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops for an extended period of time.

“I think you are going to lose the American people if you don’t come forward now and tell them what you know,” Biden told Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten. “They think Johnny and Jane are going to come marching home. …

“We can do this. We can win this. We can win the peace. But you better start to tell the American people now … billions of dollars, tens of thousands of troops. I’ll vote for it. I’ll support it. I’ll stay with you. The president has to tell them now, now, now.”

Unlike most of the Democratic presidential candidates, Biden is bashing the Bush administration to achieve a positive purpose. He obviously wants the United States to prevail in Iraq. Many of them sound like they expect — even want — the nation to fail to justify their prior opposition or weaken Bush in next year’s election.

The overriding problem with the Democratic candidates, in fact, is that they spend so much time assailing Bush that their positive programs and larger vision for the country is getting lost.

The candidates, evidently responding to Democratic activists’ loathing for Bush, seem to think that the way to win primaries is to out-Bush-bash their rivals, rather than come up with a positive agenda for running the country.

Of course, the candidates all have proposals to provide health coverage for the uninsured, revisit all or part of Bush’s tax cuts and invest in energy independence. Yet, you rarely hear them debate policy choices. They are too busy accusing Bush of lying about 16 words in his State of the Union speech.

Or, as Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said Tuesday at the group’s convention in Philadelphia, “The Democratic Party has an important choice to make: Do we want to vent, or do we want to govern?”

In truth, the DLC’s own policy publication for the Philadelphia meeting contained a good deal of over-the-top “venting,” asserting that “by any objective standard, Bush’s record on the economy is the worst since [Herbert] Hoover’s.” One problem: The country’s not in the Great Depression.

The DLC also claimed that Bush is “well on his way to placing America in greater peril, with more enemies and fewer friends, than any time since the darkest moments of the Cold War.” But Bush didn’t invent al Qaeda, North Korea, Iraq and Iran as enemies. The peril they present has to be faced, with or without France and Belgium.

But the DLC did come up with a declaration, “What We’re Fighting For,” encompassing dozens of positive initiatives for the party that will show up failings on the part of the Bush administration and also win support from moderate swing voters the party needs to win.

The DLC’s think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, also has produced a “report card” on homeland security that rates the Bush administration at “D” on most fronts, but suggests a raft of improvements to make the country safe.

And the Democratic Congressional leadership’s National Security Advisory Group, chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry, just produced another critique of Bush containing alternative policies on North Korea, proliferation, reconstruction in Iraq and national security priorities.

Taken together, the reports suggest some ripe targets for attacking Bush — and making it clear that Democrats aren’t hoping for national failure so they can win, but have plans to make the country stronger.

One DLC proposal is that the party peel back Bush’s tax cuts for high-income groups, but not the middle class. Others include cuts in corporate welfare, stock options for workers as well as executives, and allowing citizens to buy into the federal employee health insurance system.

In foreign policy, the DLC and the Perry group offer ways for Democrats to go to Bush’s right on foreign and anti-terror policy — by siding with reformers rather than rulers in Arab countries, speeding up military transformation (the Democrats should call for a bigger army to handle new global threats, but they don’t) and vastly improving homeland security preparations.

There’s no question that Democratic candidates have to show the party faithful that they differ from Bush. But the independents who’ll decide this election want to know: How will you do better? They aren’t hearing it.