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Democrats Wasting Their Opportunities

By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Democrats in Washington are feeling pretty smug these days, what with President Bush on the ropes on Social Security, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay embroiled in an ethics scandal and the Senate about to be immobilized by a partisan row over judicial nominations.

But allow me to take the contrarian view and suggest that Democrats are really nowhere when it comes to regaining their status as the party in power. They have no interesting new ideas to peddle or impressive new leaders to peddle them. And rather than trying to burnish their leadership bona fides by making tough choices and standing up to the special interests, they continue to advertise themselves as pandering, whiny, tendentious partisans who would rather score political points than actually get something done.

Just as Republicans overplayed their hand with the Clinton impeachment and George Bush overplayed his hand after the 2004 election, the Democrats are about to overplay theirs.

Social Security is a case in point. By staying unified, Democrats have pushed back an attempt to partially privatize a government social program that, more than any other, defines what they are about. They also got the president to agree to increase the amount of income subject to the payroll tax as well as a progressive scheme for slowing the growth in future benefits.

You might think, therefore, that this would be the ideal time for a minority party to take the lead with its own plan to ensure solvency of this popular program, based on those and other progressive principles. Guess again. The Washington Democrats have decided, instead, to press their advantage by demanding that the president agree to trade all consideration of private accounts, as well as his income tax cuts, plus one Supreme Court justice to be named later, before they will even pull up to the negotiating table. Apparently, they'd rather have an issue to demagogue than actually rescue a vital program.

Energy policy is another area of lost opportunity. Over the past two years Democrats might have tried to make some modest gains for the environment by engaging in some good old-fashioned horse trading -- oil drilling in the Alaskan wildlife reserve in exchange for tougher fuel efficiency standards, for example, or expedited federal approvals for oil refineries and liquefied natural gas terminals in exchange for limits on drilling on sensitive federal land. But it now appears that by buying off some Democratic senators with back-home goodies, Republicans will push through an energy bill as bad for the federal budget as it is for the environment.

And then there are the Bush tax cuts. Having railed against them in vain for the past five years, you'd think Democrats might try to reframe the issue on tax fairness. They might make a cause celebre of restoring the inheritance tax on large estates. Or they could get behind a simplified, updated alternative minimum tax that would exempt middle-income households but require those with incomes above $100,000 to pay at least 25 percent of their income in taxes, no matter where the income comes from or how it is used.

Instead, the Dems are divided on the estate tax out of fear of losing the farm vote, while running away from the alternative minimum tax now that it has begun to bite the professional class.

Democrats also have a wonderful opening now that the president's free-trade agenda has been stalled by Republican textile interests and subsidy-addicted farmers. In exchange for wage and health insurance for workers displaced by trade, Dems could offer to push through trade treaties and take credit for opening world markets to U.S. goods and services. Instead, they remain captive of a handful of industrial unions whose political clout is declining even faster than their membership.

Democrats have learned little from recent elections and even less about being the minority party in Washington -- which, ironically, may be the key to becoming the majority party once again. The challenge is to get over the denial and figure out how to turn the clock forward, not back.

Steven Pearlstein will host an online discussion at 11 a.m. today athttp://washingtonpost.com. He can be reached atpearlsteins@washpost.com.

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