Democrats Meander in a New New Direction

By Dana Milbank
Friday, September 15, 2006

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the woman who will become speaker of the House if Democrats get lucky in November, began her weekly news conference yesterday holding up a red-white-and-blue brochure.

"I hope you all received 'A New Direction for America,' " she said, standing at a lectern that bore the same slogan. She called the manifesto "a compilation of many of the initiatives taken by our House Democratic Caucus that encompasses our new direction for all Americans."

It was a handsome booklet, full of homey photographs and popular proposals, but there was a problem. Democrats have had more "New Directions" recently than MapQuest.

Among the party's campaign slogans this year: "Culture of Corruption," "Culture of Cronyism," "Do-Nothing Congress," "Rubber-Stamp Congress," "Together, We Can Do Better," "Together, America Can Do Better" and, most recently, "Six for '06."

For those keeping score at home, Democrats arrived at "New Direction" yesterday by downgrading one of the "Six for '06" issues (health care) and upgrading three others (honesty, civility and fiscal discipline), for a total of eight items on the contents page.

By contrast, Republicans have settled on a single, unofficial slogan, which essentially says: Vote Democrat and Die. And in politics, scary and scurrilous usually trumps elaborate and earnest -- something Pelosi has experienced firsthand in recent days.

The California Democrat has been the focus of the GOP attack since her remark last week that capturing Osama bin Laden wouldn't make us safer. It was similar to sentiments uttered previously by President Bush ("He's not the issue") and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ("If he were gone tomorrow, the same problem would exist"). But it set off a flurry of Benedict Arnold charges from Republicans directed at Pelosi and her colleagues.

Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) wondered whether Democrats are "more interested in protecting terrorists than in protecting the American people." Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) stood next to a poster of Pelosi and her words about bin Laden and demanded: "Where do your loyalties lie?" House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said Democrats "are confused about who the enemy actually is."

Pelosi, sitting on the sofa in her Capitol office yesterday, took the treason talk in stride. "I've been a traitor for five years," she quipped, pointing out that Republicans said much the same thing when she proposed a 9/11 commission. By now, she added, Democrats have neutralized the issue.

That's mostly true. Polls show a shrunken GOP advantage on terrorism. But the Republican attacks have shifted the debate to the one issue that benefits them -- as Pelosi witnessed in her news conference yesterday morning.

Her opening statement covered a full range of Democratic issues: fiscal responsibility. The minimum wage. The trade deficit. Student loans. Health care. Energy independence. Social Security. Medicare.

Then came the questions. "This is now the third election in a row in which they've raised security issues just before the election," the first questioner said of the Republicans. "Why won't it work for them a third time?"

"We won't be Swift-boated on the national security issue," the minority leader maintained.

"As you know," came the follow-up, Republicans "are citing past votes by you and other Democrats."

Pelosi was defensive. "I have five children," she said. "Five grandchildren, going on six. And I consider myself the ultimate security mom." By way of clarification, she felt compelled to add: "Democrats are committed to hunting down Osama bin Laden."

A third questioner pointed out that Republicans have regained the lead on national security. "This is what, I guess, campaigns will be about," Pelosi conceded with some reluctance. "It shouldn't be about national security."

It's not clear what more Pelosi could do to shift the debate back to friendly terrain. Ninety minutes after her "New Direction" news conference, she was in a teleconference with reporters to talk about Social Security. "We have serious concerns about the safety and security of Social Security," she warned.

But the journalists weren't nibbling; of the 15 people on the call, only one asked a question.

At about the time Pelosi was unveiling the "New Direction" brochures, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) was out on the Senate floor, accusing Democrats of aiding the terrorists. "Al-Qaeda," he said, sees "the lack of resolve in some of our leaders, and they seek to exploit it."

The charge enraged Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who had come to the floor to talk about education.

"America is not tired of fighting terrorism," she retorted. "America is tired of the wrongheaded and boneheaded leadership of the Republican Party that has sent $6.5 billion a month to Iraq when the front line was Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, that led this country to attack Saddam Hussein when we were attacked by Osama bin Laden."

She continued: "And Americans are most certainly tired of leadership that, despite documented mistake after mistake after mistake . . . never admit that they ever do anything wrong."

It was angry and raw. But it was a new direction.

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