It's not hard to tell Democrats from Republicans these days. The Democrats are the ones with the red faces. Embarrassment is the prevailing sentiment among Democrats as they buckle up for the November battle to keep the Senate and recapture the House.
Their blushes began when they failed to produce on their gravest pledge -- to provide a Medicare prescription drug bill. Stories of indigent elders cutting up pills, cutting out doses or going hungry to pay for do-or-die drugs filled the Senate floor and corridors during the debate, but Democrats could not rally the 60 votes required for passage.
Outside the Senate chamber, another pageant of futility was unfolding. Tony Williams, mayor of the overwhelmingly Democratic federal city, was making a hash of the reelection campaign that was supposed to be a cakewalk for him. Without opposition worth thinking about, he farmed out a project of collecting signatures for a petition; he reaped a festival of forgeries. The fraud was so transparent -- pages of names written in the same hand -- that the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics threw most of them out, the D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, and His Honor is now appealing to voters to write him in on their ballots. Williams took over from Marion Barry, a notorious ne'er-do-well who played the race card and presided over an administration fabled for its surliness. Williams, who was supposed to personify bow-tied tidiness, now represents another Democratic embarrassment.
Amid the bustle of departure from Capitol Hill, a sharp bark was suddenly heard. It came from, of all places, the slumberous Senate ethics committee, in the case of the impeccably tailored New Jersey incumbent, who is up for reelection. The ethics committee bit him with charges of accepting gifts, such as his gorgeous Italian suits, from a campaign donor. Robert Torricelli scurried to the Senate floor to say he was sorry, and then limped home to face the music.
The first congressional returns, from Michigan, were uninstructive, in that old House bull John Dingell, who is anti-environment (a friend of the SUV) and pro-gun, easily swamped a challenger, Lynn Rivers, who was green, pro-gun-control and pro-choice. The unions turned out en masse for Dingell; what is awkward for Democrats is that their dynamic new House whip, Nancy Pelosi, financially backed Rivers in the primary, angering party regulars and, of course, Dingell, a formidable force in her flock.
The West Coast offers more chagrin. Gray Davis, the incumbent governor, running against a hard-right challenger named Bill Simon, whose family business was just fined $78 million for irregular practices, cannot get purchase in the polls. He's only seven points ahead of Simon, even though California is a marquee victim of Big Business villainy: Enron robbed the state blind during an energy shortage that Enron helped create.
Democrats realize that their real trouble is that they lack a leader to guide them through Bush country. They need a strong, unifying voice that would resonate in the land. Some would rather go to war with Iraq than with George Bush and his sky-high ratings. The difficulty of picking a prospect for 2004 was illustrated last at the meeting in New York of the Democratic Leadership Conference.
Sen. Joe Lieberman continues his loud, foot-tapping impatience with the titular leader of the party, Al Gore, who has resumed his dreary debate with himself about who he is.
Identity is for Gore as elusive as Osama bin Laden. Lieberman, who wishes Gore would get out of the way so he could throw his hat into the ring, told the right-wing Dems that his old running mate was too far left in the campaign. Gore accuses himself of paying too much attention to consultants.
During the meeting, Sen. John Kerry got a respectful front-page story in the New York Times for his informed questions on Bush foreign policy, but Hillary Clinton spoke flippantly and won the presidential poll, another mortification for Democrats, who didn't expect to face so soon the question of whether the country is ready for another Clinton in the Oval Office. The first President Clinton is still the one-size-fits-all scapegoat for Republicans; he is blamed for Bush's bloody mess in the Middle East, the collapse of the stock market and the Sept. 11 attacks.
The administration should be blushing now, but you would never know it. President Bush, whose reckless tax cuts slashed the surplus and hopes for prescription drugs, travels the country talking up the economy. In keeping with the Bush tradition of using shamelessness as a political weapon, Vice President Cheney emerged from seclusion forbidding all questions about his Halliburton past and the Securities and Exchange Commission, and he has taken this moment to assure us he is available for another term, health and the president permitting.