Why the Democrats Are All Boxed In

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We have reached a moment of transcendent weirdness in American politics and perhaps a defining moment in the 2004 presidential campaign. In Washington last week, Newt Gingrich and the AARP — who battled each other over old-age entitlement spending in the 1990s — joined the White House in support of a new $400 billion Medicare prescription-drug benefit. Odder still, the Wall Street Journal's ultraconservative editorial page opposed the bill, as did ultraliberal House leader Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy and most of the Democrats running for President. This, after a decade of Democrats pleading for just such a benefit and lambasting Republicans for blocking it. This, in the same week that Tom Daschle and George Bush joined forces to support the fetid enormity of a $31 billion energy bill, which was quickly dubbed the Hooters and Polluters Bill, since it funded, among many other things, construction of an energy-efficient Hooters restaurant in Shreveport, La. This, in the same week that Massachusetts moved toward legalization of gay marriage.

Confused? Overwhelmed? Appalled? Yes, yes and yes. This was an awful week for the Democrats, who are likely to lose — politically — on all fronts. And it was a shameful week — substantively — for the Bush Administration.

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The political equation is obvious. The President will be able to say the Democrats opposed prescription drugs for the elderly whether the Medicare bill passes or not (just as he campaigned in 2002 saying the Democrats blocked Homeland Security because they wanted labor-protection provisions in the bill). The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the energy bill, which Senators of both parties managed to stop, perhaps temporarily, last Friday. The President can still say, "We proposed energy 'reform'; the Dems opposed." Not many Americans will scour the fine print. As for gay marriage, my guess is that Bush will remain above the fray. The issue is too raw — and his Vice President has taken the same position as most Democrats have. But Bush will benefit nonetheless from the anguish and agitation on the religious right, which will use the ruling to invigorate turnout among Christian conservatives.

The week's events illuminate a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans on domestic policy. The Democrats are boxed into complicated and unpopular positions because they tend to stand on principle — although the principles involved are often antiquated, peripheral and, arguably, foolish. The Republicans, by contrast, have abandoned traditional conservatism to gain political advantage (with the elderly, for instance) or to pay off their stable of corporate-welfare recipients. The Medicare bill contains large gifts to pharmaceutical manufacturers; the energy bill is a $23.5 billion bequest to traditional-energy producers, with additional billions worth of free-range pork tossed in. "This is classic machine politics, the sort of thing we used to do," said a prominent Democrat. Hence the Wall Street Journal's opposition to both bills. After all, Bush is running such huge deficits that they might imperil the prospect of endless tax cuts — and even "increase pressure to raise taxes to pay for" these new programs, the editors noted.

The Democrats' opposition to the Medicare bill was both tortured and intemperate. Some of the gripes are legitimate — the proposed drug benefit is complicated and in many cases insufficient. But Ted Kennedy voted for that benefit last summer. The sticking points now involve matters of Democratic Party theology, and they require a brief explanation. Medicare currently is a fee-for-service program, which means it works the way old-fashioned medicine did — essentially, you get whatever services you request. This is fabulously expensive and bound to grow more so as the baby boomers retire. Most Republicans and many moderate Democrats want to restrain costs by moving toward a system of managed care — which is what most non-elderly Americans now receive through HMOs and preferred-physician networks. The Medicare bill contains a six-city test of managed care, which would begin in 2010. This tiny experiment is what sent the Democrats up a wall. "We're not going to let seniors be herded into HMOs," Dick Gephardt harrumphed. Their alternative? Well, they don't have one. "Medicare should be left alone," said Howard Dean, who used to be more creative — and honest — about such things.

The vehemence of the Democratic assault was astonishing. The AARP, formerly a linchpin of the liberal coalition, was trashed by various liberals as a den of insurance-peddling moneygrubbers. House Democrats told me that minority leader Pelosi was twisting arms with unprecedented avidity — anyone who voted in favor was "no longer a Democrat," and plum committee assignments would go only to loyalists. I suspect this reflects desperation as much as principle. The Bush Administration is outsmarting the Democrats at every turn. The economy seems to be recovering. If Iraq is stabilized — a huge if — what will the Democrats run on? Their intellectual cupboard is bare, and the election may be slipping away.