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Bush Aims To Forge A GOP Legacy

Second-Term Plans Look to Undercut Democratic Pillars

By Thomas B. Edsall and John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page A01

When President Bush stands before Congress on Wednesday night to deliver his State of the Union address, it is a safe bet that he will not announce that one of his goals is the long-term enfeeblement of the Democratic Party.

But a recurring theme of many items on Bush's second-term domestic agenda is that if enacted, they would weaken political and financial pillars that have propped up Democrats for years, political strategists from both parties say.

President Bush, shown during last year's State of the Union, will address Congress on Wednesday night. (Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)

Legislation putting caps on civil damage awards, for instance, would choke income to trial lawyers, among the most generous contributors to the Democratic Party.

GOP strategists, likewise, hope that the proposed changes to Social Security can transform a program that has long been identified with the Democrats, creating a generation of new investors who see their interests allied with the Republicans.

Less visible policies also have sharp political overtones. The administration's transformation of civil service rules at federal agencies, for instance, would limit the power and membership of public employee unions -- an important Democratic financial artery.

If the Bush agenda is enacted, "there will be a continued growth in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves Republican, both in terms of self-identified party ID and in terms of their [economic] interests," said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and an operative who speaks regularly with White House senior adviser Karl Rove.

Many Democrats and independent analysts see a methodical strategy at work. They believe the White House has expressly tailored its domestic agenda to maximize hazards for Democrats and tilt the political playing field in the GOP's favor long after this president is out of the White House.

All presidents weigh the political implications of their agendas, and hope that policies that prove popular will strengthen a party's claims on particular constituencies. What is notable about the Bush White House, some analysts believe, is the extent to which its agenda is crafted with an eye toward the long-term partisan implications.

"I've been assuming all along that creating the basis for a durable Republican majority was one of the major purposes of the administration's policy agenda," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. "Indeed, I don't think these guys do anything without weighing the potential partisan consequences and are particularly attracted to policies that might increase the Republican coalition."

John D. Podesta, White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and now head of the liberal Center for American Progress, said, "I think that most of their domestic agenda is driven and run by a political strategy as much as core fundamentals and belief."

His top example is the curbs on lawsuits. "Why would you make this the cause célèbre?" he asked. "The notion that this is a key element of their economic program is laughable. It's important to them in both directions both in organizing core elements of their business and doctor communities, and at least undermining a financial base of the Democratic Party."

Republicans note that limiting the growth of lawsuits and damage awards, as well as proposed investment accounts in Social Security, are ideas Bush and other conservatives have championed for years. The Bush agenda lies "at the wonderful intersection where good policy is good politics for Republicans and conservatives," said Stephen Moore, president of the Free Enterprise Fund, which is lobbying for the Social Security changes.

But, one rung away from the White House, many Bush allies make no effort to disguise their glee at the payoffs these ideas could bring to interest groups allied with the GOP, and the heartburn they would cause interest groups allied with the Democrats.

In an interview last week, for instance, Norquist unabashedly dissected the political overtones of legislation to limit lawsuits.

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