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Democrats united. GOP divided
Turning the Tables
April 4, 2006

On Capitol Hill last week, it was almost as if the two parties had decided to switch roles. At a press briefing, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer was declaring, "Republicans don't have an agenda," a critique Republicans usually hurl at Democrats. The next day Hoyer and other Democrats from the Senate and House, along with state governors, got together to announce the party's unified plan for improving America's national security.

Meanwhile, Republicans were looking in disarray — even before the announcement this week that Tom DeLay would give up his House seat. Some House Republicans were quietly rasing concerns after Majority Leader John Boehner questioned the value of a 700-mile fence for the U.S.-Mexico border that was part of an immigration bill passed by the House in December, while Senate Republicans questioned if their leader, Bill Frist, was allowing his presidential ambitions to get in the way of passing immigration legislation. And as the Senate moved forward with a lenient immigration reform plan, a group of almost two dozen House Republicans held a press conference to strongly denounce the Senate GOP's approach.

The conventional wisdom in Washington in recent years has been that Republicans are more unified and disciplined and have better-articulated ideas than Democrats, who are often at war with one another and questioning their leadership. But lately the Democrats, looking to create a campaign platform for 2006, have put out some ideas that their famously fractured party largely agrees on. Earlier this year, they released a plan to reform lobbying following the scandals of Jack Abramoff. Last week's security ideas were hardly earth-shattering: increasing inspection of goods coming through U.S. ports, doubling the number of Special Forces troops, pushing Iraq toward full sovereignty by the end of this year, and increasing efforts to make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil. Some Democrats, like Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, have called for more aggressive steps, like the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But Democrats seem to broadly agree on the security issues that hurt them in 2002 and 2004.

And Democrats can't be accused of lacking ideas: many of the party's most prominent leaders are putting out long tomes detailing their views. Later this month, Ted Kennedy's book America Back on Track will lay out ideas to ensure universal health care for all Americans, and House Democrat Rahm Emanuel and former Clinton aide Bruce Reed will put out a modestly titled book called The Plan in August that includes ideas such as a national science and technology center modeled on the National Institutes of Health. Illinois Senator Barack Obama has told the Chicago Tribune his new book The Audacity of Hope, due out in October, will look to show how politicians can "shift away from ideological debates and focus on traditional American common sense."

By contrast, on many key issues, Republicans can't find much agreement. Moderates and conservatives in House will spend this week battling over proposed spending cuts in the budget, while Republicans in the Senate fight about immigration reform. President Bush's domestic agenda, from health savings accounts to a commission to reform Social Security and other entitlement plans, has drawn little enthusiasm on Capitol Hill.

To be sure, Democrats still have their own problems. With a bunch of different presidential candidates, governors, congressional leaders and Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, the party doesn't have one strong defining leader. And while Democrats may agree broadly, there are still major differences on tactics, such as the proposal to censure Bush over his warrantless spying program offered by Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold. That idea won little support among his fellow Democrats. "I don't think it's a lack of ideas; it's coherence," says Paul Begala, the veteran Democratic strategist. The anti-war left is so mad at Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, for instance, that they're running a primary campaign against him.

And some prominent Republicans are offering their own policy ideas. Frist wants to start a program modeled on the Peace Corps that would send doctors and nurses to countries lacking medical personnel. Jack Kingston, a Republican congressman from Georgia, has put out what he's called the American Renewal Project, an eight-point plan that calls for a commission to recommend spending cuts to balance the budget and stop spending the Social Security surplus. The Republican Study Committee, a group of the most conservative House members, has released a plan to balance the budget in the next five years, although it would require politically difficult cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.

But the more important question might be: do policy plans and unity matter? Republicans have long argued their "Contract with America" — a 10-point plan signed by more than 300 GOP candidates — helped push them toward victory in November 1994. But according to polls at the time, most voters had not ever heard of the contract by Election Day. And many Democrats question the need for any kind of grand plan, particularly with President Bush's poll numbers below 40%; the party could urge voters to choose Democrats in Congress just to offer a balance to Bush. The key question, some Dems argue, is how successful they are in tying Republican candidates to Bush and making the election about the Administration's mistakes in Iraq and during Hurricane Katrina, rather than touting their own proposals in long policy statements. "To my way of thinking, voters don't need lots of plans," says Dianne Farrell, a Democratic congressional candidate in Connecticut running against incumbent Republican Christopher Shays. "Voters get it." Still, after years of being a house divided, Democrats will soon show their unity on another issue, putting out their plans for the economy — while happily watching the GOP's continuing family feud.

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