After Bush's Sunny Speech, Dems' Response Seems Sour

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The Democrats respond: Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Dick Gephardt

George W. Bush is a tough act to follow. Especially when he's practically whipping out his own personal checkbook and writing the American public a nice big fat tax refund.

And Tuesday night, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt learned that lesson the hard way, batting clean-up for the Democrats after the President's first (and enthusiastically received) address to Congress. It was a thankless job: After all the nearly euphoric backslapping that met the President's speech, it fell to the Democrats to make a case for boring old frugality.

Sitting stiffly in high-backed chairs in a formal drawing room, the Democrats looked like they were introducing an unappetizing episode of "Masterpiece Theatre" in which the heroes rush in armed with calculators to save their people from the ravages of indiscriminate tax reform.

Daschle hits at tax plan

Daschle began on a conciliatory note, pledging to cooperate with the President and work with Republicans in Congress to advance the causes dear to the American people. He promised to support the President's literacy initiative and ratify higher pay for members of the military. But, he said, the Democrats will not sit around and let Bush sell the country on a set of faulty numbers.

Bush's agenda, Daschle maintains, will cost upwards of $2 trillion dollars. And once the $1.6 trillion tax cut is taken out of that, Democrats say, there will be nothing left for anything else, let alone the education programs and military pay increases that are assured bipartisan support.

Then, calling the President's tax plan "deeply unfair" to everyone but the wealthiest Americans, Daschle fired a warning shot at Bush's budget priorities. "When we disagree with the President, as we do on issues like Medicare and Social Security reform, we'll fight — and we'll fight hard."

Too good to be true?

When Gephardt joined in, it was to underscore what the Democrats see as the irresponsibility inherent in Bush's plan. "If what the President said tonight sounded too good to be true," he warned, "it probably is." He went on to paint a grim picture of all the programs that would suffer if the surplus were gobbled up by a tax break: Medicare, prescription benefits, higher minimum wage and improved public schools.

As far as numbers and common sense go, the Democrats' response was solid. But in terms of political dexterity or public relations acumen, it was a bust. Daschle and Gephardt's dour response to Bush's ebullient address to Congress should serve as a stark reminder to Democrats still trying to decipher Gore's loss to Bush: Most Americans don't need or want to be reminded that life is hard, money is tight and things could be better. The gloom and doom implicit the Democrats' message may, in fact, be more realistic than the goofily optimistic tone Bush likes to set. But, as Reagan-era Democratic veterans should know, reality is often far less appealing to voters than a dose of uncomplicated good cheer.