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Fred Hiatt

Bad News Donkeys

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, February 7, 2005; Page A21

Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry spent much of last year telling voters how badly off they were.

The economy had tanked, jobs had fled and George W. Bush (aka Herbert Hoover) "has caused these things to happen," the Massachusetts senator told the Detroit Economic Club in September.

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As it turned out, there were at least three drawbacks to this line of argumentation.

One was that it wasn't true. Yes, Bush had inherited an incipient recession and the subsequent recovery had been slower than previous bounce-backs to generate jobs. But when the numbers came in last month, the U.S. economy turned out to have grown in 2004 by a very healthy 4.4 percent, producing a respectable (though far from record) total of 2.2 million jobs.

Second, misdiagnosis led Kerry to a number of misguided prescriptions, many of them centering on "Benedict Arnold" chief executives.

But worst, at least from a political perspective, the hectoring made Kerry look like a grump. A challenger can run on a bad economy if people really feel bad; if he seems to be trying to convince them that they should feel bad, he's in trouble.

All of which has some relevance for the Democrats' dilemma in 2005.

It's never easy to be in opposition. You're always reacting. You can't present a unified message. You have a responsibility to criticize the incumbent and speak up for the neglected, but criticizing can easily be depicted as carping.

None of this is news to Democrats, which is why they sandwich every grumpy speech between declarations of optimism and paeans to the resilience of the American spirit. But a little Ronald Reagan rhetoric doesn't turn you into Ronald Reagan.

And Bush has been particularly skillful at pushing Democrats into the corner with the dreaded "Pessimist" sign hanging overhead. Iraq is, for many Democrats, the most maddening example. They believe Bush made a terrible mistake by starting the war and that he went on to execute it incompetently. Yet, by virtue of that very failure, he has put them in the position of supporting his policy as the only responsible way out.

Their response has been to seek an irresponsible way out -- or to go along with the president, knowing that he will give them neither credit for their support nor the satisfaction of admitting any of the errors that seem so obvious to them.

Which, in turn, makes them grumpy. When Kerry kicked off his 2008 presidential campaign on "Meet the Press" eight days ago, Tim Russert's first question was about the Iraqi election. The voting was at that moment unfolding on American television screens, a festival of democracy that -- whatever comes next -- would be seen as an iconic moment in the history of people's yearning for self-determination.

"I think it's gone as expected," grumped Kerry.

And when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi delivered her response to the State of the Union address Wednesday, she described a "plan" for Iraq that was essentially identical to Bush's -- train the Iraqis faster, speed up economic development, work with neighbors -- but with so much negative language ("We all know that the United States cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and continue to be viewed as an occupying force") that she sounded grudging and morose.

On domestic affairs the Democrats find themselves in a similar box. Since for the most part they cheerfully drank Bush's tax-cut Kool-Aid in 2001, you may not have much sympathy for their quandary. But the fact remains that if they criticize the president's fiscal irresponsibility, they cannot then propose a raft of glorious Democratic programs; if they defend the programs, they can't very well complain about the deficit; and while they try to figure this out, Bush proposes new spending, blames Congress for the deficit and pays no political price. It's enough to make anyone grumpy.

Now comes Social Security, which might appear to be the Democrats' chance to walk on the sunny side. After all, it seems as though Bush is the one playing Gloomy Gus this time, with all his talk of imminent collapse and bankruptcy.

In fact, though, Bush is offering younger voters something that seems quite appealing: a personal savings account that they will control, a 401(k) plan in every pot. The Democrats are putting themselves in the position of telling those voters that they don't want that shiny present as much as they think they do, or that they'll be disappointed when they tear off the paper and see what's inside the box. This is as much a winning strategy as telling them that they ought to feel worse than they do.

Eeyore's friends never doubted his good intentions. But none of them would have chosen him first for a playmate, either.


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