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The Slumber Party
Published on Saturday, March 17, 2001 in the New York Times
The Slumber Party
by Frank Rich
It felt like an episode of "The Twilight Zone" to pass through Florida last weekend. There, splashed over most of the front page of Sunday's Palm Beach Post, was the paper's investigative scoop: Palm Beach County's butterfly ballot cost Al Gore "about 6,600 votes, more than 10 times what he needed to overcome George W. Bush's slim lead in Florida."

It felt like "The Twilight Zone" because beyond Palm Beach or Boca, at any rate who knew or cared? I turned on my TV and had to search to find a mention of the Post's story. It might as well have been a hallucination.

This is less an indictment of the national media than a political reality. Democrats may be furious about being robbed in Election 2000, but they don't go in for nostalgia about what might have been. They don't know where Al Gore is, or (even now) who he is. They don't know where the Democratic Party is. It was also last Sunday that Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's labor secretary, declared in The Washington Post that the Democrats are "an ex-party" that has "expired and gone to meet its maker." Who would argue? The party that won the popular vote on Nov. 7 stands for little and has no evident leaders. In the Senate, the best the Democrats can come up with for a political strategy is a death watch.

If too much has been said about the Clinton post-presidency, too little has been said about the Al Gore post-vice presidency. His narrow, very un-Dukakis-like loss has not emboldened him but seemingly thrust him into the witness protection program. The only public issue on which he's taken a loud stand is the death of Dale Earnhardt. (He was against it.) He remained mum about the Clinton pardons even as he leaked his disfavor sotto voce through emissaries and about George W. Bush's reversal this week on a signature Gore issue, global warming. Showing the same political skills that animated (barely) his campaign, Mr. Gore has instead made news by reconnoitering with his biggest donors at an Upper East Side dinner at the very height of the pardons fracas and by teaching a Columbia Journalism School class that initially placed the fledgling reporters in his tutelage under a gag order.

Into the Clinton-Gore vacuum comes . . . who? Would-be '04 candidates like Senators John Edwards and Evan Bayh are tossing their hats into the Cokie-chat circuit, not so much because they have compelling thoughts or achievements but because they fit the media's ideal mold for political "fresh faces" they resemble ambitious, if mid-market, local TV news anchormen. In their televised response to President Bush's Congressional address, Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt offered not an alternative governmental vision but a hastily assembled alternative tax cut, dressed up in some of the populist rhetoric remaindered from the Gore campaign. Not even the latest rash of school shootings moved the Democrats to speak up about gun control, a former passion of the party that was scuttled by Mr. Gore last year.

What makes the Democrats' ineffectuality all the more bizarre is that it's in opposition to a new president who is hardly as formidable as Ronald Reagan and whose major policy innovations thus far seem to be institutionalizing nicknames at the White House and redefining medical terminology so that each of Dick Cheney's emergency heart procedures can be labeled as "precautionary."

Here's a scorecard on the new administration's agenda to date:

The economy: The president has sold his $1.6 trillion tax cut as "just right" a "jump start" for a "faltering" economy. Even as the market started gasping for breath this week, he stuck to his script, saying his plan would give the economy a "second wind." Does anyone believe that? Even were the Bush tax cut more equitable in offering relief to Americans with fewer Alcoa shares than his treasury secretary, it's too little and too late to serve as a stimulant. Eighty-nine percent of the cuts don't kick in until 2006, and now conservatives are in full panic that Mr. Bush's "right" number could in fact make a downturn worse. The G.O.P., following Mr. Bush's rhetoric, is invoking John Kennedy in ads plugging the tax cut, but as Stephen Moore observed in The Weekly Standard: "The Reagan and Kennedy tax cuts sliced the top tax rate by 20 and 14 percentage points, respectively, in the first year. The Bush plan cuts the top rate by less than 2 percentage points. We're just not comparing apples to apples here."

Education: "You teach a child to read and he or her will pass a literacy test," says Mr. Bush. But conservative governors are already protesting the Texas model of having uniform tests statewide. The result could be a toothless bill and the collapse of any coherent standards that might measure which schools are leaving kids behind.

Faith-based initiative: This scheme has already kindled religious wars between Pat Robertson and a trio of religions he accuses of using "brainwashing techniques" and between Jerry Falwell and Islam ("the Muslim faith teaches hate"). As if this weren't enough, the Bush administration point man on this experiment, John DiIulio, has now injected the race card. In a speech defending the initiative, he opened fire on Southern Baptists by chiding "white evangelical churches" for lacking the dedication to community service of "urban African-American and Latino" congregations. Within days, The Washington Post reported that the most controversial part of the Bush package direct government funding of religious charities might not make it to the Senate for a year.

Social Security reform: The buck was passed to a commission, which presumably won't be recommending, as Mr. Bush did in the campaign, that taxpayers play the stock market with their retirement accounts.

Foreign policy: No sooner does the secretary of state, Colin Powell, signal administration policy on Iraq and North Korea than Mr. Bush reverses it.

There is one area, though, where the new administration has had unqualified success rewarding its financial backers. The coal industry, which gave most of its $3.8 million in soft money to the Republicans, this week scored Mr. Bush's reversal of his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, even at the price of humiliating Christie Whitman, the E.P.A. chief who had vouched for her president's word. The MBNA Corporation, the largest donor to the Bush campaign, is reaping its reward with a "bankruptcy reform" bill that makes it harder for its credit card holders to seek bankruptcy protection but does nothing to regulate its showering of credit cards on Americans (like teenagers) who are likely to fall into debt. U.P.S., which gave 85 percent of its $1.3 million in contributions to the G.O.P., is a conspicuous beneficiary of the White House rollback of workplace ergonomic regulations.

Among the Bush contributors soon to step up to the plate are airlines and the pharmaceutical companies. Don't lose any sleep dreaming about a passengers' bill of rights or lower costs for prescription drugs.

Will the Terry McAuliffe-led Democrats, who with Hillary Clinton's help now rake in more soft money than the Republicans, at least fight to reform the corrupt intersection of big bucks and politics that produces quid pro quos for Marc Rich and MBNA alike? The test is certainly at hand: on Monday, the Senate at last begins its debate of the McCain-Feingold bill that would take first steps to clean up this system of legalized bribery.

Up until this week, virtually every Senate Democrat has been on record in favor of reform, but up until now that talk was cheap, since previous G.O.P. Senate majorities always guaranteed the bill's defeat.

"Will the Democrats flip-flop with victory now in sight?" asks Scott Harshbarger of Common Cause. "This is the moment of truth for the Democrats," says another longtime warrior for this cause, Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21. "The only way the bill fails is if a sufficient number of Democrats abandon it."

The abandonment could take the form of signing on to poison-pill amendments (including those endorsed by President Bush on Thursday) that gut McCain-Feingold's already watered-down provisions, or of seeking cover in a disingenuous "compromise" bill, crafted by Chuck Hagel and rightly dismissed by John McCain as an "affirmation of soft money" rather than a potential ban of it.

"I hope the Democratic Party will stand up and be counted here," says Mr. Harshbarger. Given what we've seen of the Democrats this year, this may be a wish that, like a Gore presidency, can come true only in the Twilight Zone.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company


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