Sunday, October 09, 2005

Scotland on Sunday - Top Stories - Democrats relishing signs of recovery amid mounting trouble for Bush

Scotland on Sunday - Top Stories - Democrats relishing signs of recovery amid mounting trouble for Bush: "Democrats relishing signs of recovery amid mounting trouble for Bush

THESE are strange days in Washington. For the first time since Bill Clinton was president, Democrats are happier than Republicans.

President George W Bush is discovering that he has less political capital than he had imagined. A combination of circumstances, ranging from an apparently endless engagement in Iraq to the federal government's bumbling response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina have ensured the president has no need to seek his troubles.

To the list of woes must be added the investigations into the leaking of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity by senior White House staff, the indictment of House majority leader Tom DeLay on money laundering charges and conservative unhappiness over the selection of Bush's friend Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court despite the fact she has no judicial experience. No wonder his approval rating is at 37% according to the latest CBS poll, while just 26% of Americans think the country is on the right track.

In the zero sum game of Washington politics that means one thing: it's a good time to be a Democrat. Or, more specifically, it's a better time to be a Democrat than at any point in the Bush presidency. Hope has returned to Democrats who now believe they have a chance to make significant inroads in next year's mid-term elections.

"We as a party are going to be the broom that sweeps things clean," says New York Senator Charles Schumer. Democrats intend to run on a platform of "change and reform", promising an alternative to a political culture tainted by corporate cronyism and corruption. Winning back the House and Senate from the GOP may still be too much to hope for, but if the Democrats can't chip away at the Republican's 55-44 advantage in the Senate and 231-202 majority in the House given current Republican difficulties they may not do so for the foreseeable political future.

The Miers nomination is the latest and most high-profile cause of conservative disgruntlement. "Do they [the White House] understand that beyond getting past the unhappiness with this choice, there is a profound sense of discontent within the conservative movement?" says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In another sign of how the Bush administration's power has weakened, only nine Republican senators heeded the White House's call to reject Senator John McCain's amendment to the defence appropriations bill that would codify the treatment of enemy prisoners held by the US military and explicitly rule out their torture. That amendment, supported by Colin Powell in a letter to McCain, was passed by 90 votes to nine. Such Congressional independence is a sign that conservative politicians on Capitol Hill are beginning to look to their own future rather than being content to carry water for the White House.

While Democrats can be counted upon to repeat their massive 2004 "get out the vote" operation next year, there may be less incentive for disillusioned Republicans to mobilise their forces. Disillusioned conservatives may prefer to stay at home. Senator Elizabeth Dole, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee admits: "If historical trends are any indication, the party of an incumbent president following re-election traditionally loses seats."

Even so, Democrats remain cautious. "We aren't losing now, but that's a far cry from actually winning," says one aide to a senior House Democrat.

Bruce Reed, formerly a domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton, says Republican troubles "merely give Democrats an opening. We can't indict our way back to the majority. The jury we have to convince is the American people".

That may be possible. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrat challenger Bob Casey, son of a popular former governor of the Keystone State, holds an 18-point lead over Rick Santorum, the incumbent Republican senator. Santorum, arguably the most religious member of the Senate, has been a Democrat target for some time and faces a difficult re-election bid in a state that voted for John Kerry last year.

There is encouraging news for Democrats in West Virginia too, where a prominent Republican considered and then rejected the option of challenging 88-year-old Senator Robert Byrd, essentially conceding that the veteran senator could not be beaten. Likewise, Senator Kent Conrad in North Dakota will not, as he had thought he would, face a determined Republican challenge.

These may be small signs, but they point to the fact that Democrats are in ruder health now than they have been at any point in the Bush presidency. Beating back the encroaching Republican tide remains a long-term task, but the short-term political position seems healthier for Democrats. Republican tea leaf readers are seeing worrying signs that next year's mid-terms, traditionally bad for the incumbent party, is no time to be sticking your Republican neck out.

Whether that will last is a different matter. Marshal Wittman, formerly a staffer for John McCain but now a member of the Democratic Leadership Council, argues: "There is a need for a cleansing. If the right can cast off the Bushie-DeLay establishment, there is a chance that it can re-emerge with reforming conservative leaders in time for the 2008 presidential election."

The biggest downside for Democrats right now is the idea that Republican difficulties may have come a year too soon."


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