Reading between Democratic primary lines

It's again time for some questions and answers on the political scene:

Q: What is the distinguishing mark of the 2004 Democratic primaries?

A: The call from the candidates for a new direction in the presidency is particularly insistent. It reflects a voter attitude that is more upset with leadership in Washington than I've seen since I battled the deep snows of New Hampshire in the 1968 primary and saw the antiwar revolt against President Johnson showing up in a strong vote for Eugene McCarthy.

Back then it was the Democrats rising up against an incumbent Democratic president and causing him to drop out of the effort to stay in office. Now it seems more natural: Democrats seeking to knock a GOP president off his perch.

Q: Why the passionate feeling against Bush? Is it just the war?

A: No. As I've spent hours listening to voters being interviewed on C-SPAN and elsewhere, I've concluded: These Democrats mainly just don't like George W. Bush. They find him cocky, arrogant; he rubs them the wrong way. That's what drives their vote.

Sure, these liberal Democrats are terribly unhappy with Bush for the Iraq war. And that remains a big issue - but not as big as it was before Saddam Hussein was captured, which took some air out of the controversy. If Bush is able to bring increased stability to the governing of Iraq, the war issue may not be too useful to the Democrats by the time the fall election arrives.

But what also makes these Democrats mad at Bush is what they see as his "invasion" of their legislative territory - including his prescription-drug program which (unconscionably!) the usually liberal AARP backed; his proposal to give legal status to immigrant labor, which has irritated conservatives; and his "No Child Left Behind" education program.

Democrats won't give him credit for these efforts on pressing problems. Instead they complain these moves don't go far enough and won't work.

Q: If elected president, how successful will the eventual nominee be in making the big changes he's promised?

A: I'm thinking here of the Monitor's legendary columnist and newsman - Roscoe Drummond - and how he'd pound this thesis: That except in unusual times like the Great Depression or right after the assassination of President Kennedy, an incoming president would usually be confronted with enough foot-dragging in Congress to cause him to scale back or even discard some of his ideas for big change.

Here I'm wondering, too, what Roscoe would think about the current Democratic candidates with their talk of huge change. I think he'd say that some changes would occur, but that they probably would be held down in size by an evenly divided Congress that would reflect an evenly divided populace. I think he'd say that the new Democratic president might well, at least after a few years of turndowns by Congress, move toward a moderate legislative agenda.

I thought of my old friend, Roscoe and his theory during the early years of Bill Clinton's presidency, when he butted into the firm opposition of Congress (including some Democrats who strayed away from him) as he tried to make his mark with very expensive extended healthcare legislation. Soon after that rebuff (to Mrs. Clinton as well as to the president) Mr. Clinton began to move toward the center and, as the next election appeared on the horizon, he let the public know that he was pursuing a relatively conservative course.

That was in September 1995 when Clinton - then down in public approval ratings - hosted a luncheon for the Monitor's press group at the White House and told the 50-some journalists that the day of big government spending programs was over. He thus made it clear that he was through with initiating or pushing the kind of huge social programs that liberals had for years been expecting of a Democratic president.

Q: Do you see a winner among those Democrats seeking votes?

A: Senator Kerry may be on the verge of wrapping up the nomination, but whoever the eventual winner is, he will give George W. Bush a run for his money. I still think that it's Bush's election to lose.

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