Beginning what looks like a full-scale party offensive, Senate Democrats released a series of legislative proposals this week, which, they say, will serve as their Top 10 agenda items for the current session of Congress. There was a coherence to the enterprise that betrayed some of the policy strategizing and message-messaging that party leaders have been promising for some time. There was even a tag line with reasonable battle-cry potential: "Security, Opportunity, and Responsibility."
Acknowledging their disadvantage on national-security issues, the first three proposed bills deal with expanding troop strength, targeting terrorists, and increasing support for National Guard and Reserve units and for veterans. The rest is a lot of what you might expect from congressional Democrats: keeping jobs from going offshore and making health care more affordable; improving education, reducing the deficit, and increasing the minimum wage.
"[O]pportunity, in America, is a fundamental value, and one that we as Democrats will continue to fight to make sure is available to everybody," said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
North Dakota's Byron Dorgan blared like a trumpet. "If we can't take the first baby step in shutting down the perverse, insidious tax incentives that reward you for shipping your jobs overseas to produce products that are then shipped back into the American marketplace," he said, "the Congress ought to hang its head."
As usual, there were reams of papers issued in connection with this unveiling, much of it under the letterhead of Minority Leader Harry Reid's new Senate Democratic Communication Center. The letterhead uses the insignia from the flag of Nevada, Reid's home state, as its logo, the most prominent feature of which is the phrase "Battle Born." There is little question that Hill Democrats are in a fighting mood.
"Let's not get carried away with the mandate of President Bush," Reid declared, recounting some the success Democrats had across the country in legislative races. "There is no mandate."
But whether Democrats have any chance of advancing their plans or can deny the president his remains very much in question. The outcome will depend on which Democratic Party shows up for the fight. The Battle Born motto on the Nevada flag is a reference to the fact that the Silver State was admitted to the Union during the Civil War (1864). And these days it seems that Democrats are on the verge of a more perfect union, or full-fledged civil war: Is theirs going to be the party that seems to have marshaled all of its troops to defeat the White House's Social Security reforms, or is theirs going to be the party that seems set to tear itself to bits over abortion?
Democrats have been so relentless and so united on Social Security that some Republicans have conceded that Democrats are defining the issue, and are therefore setting the parameters for the debate.
"There is no crisis in Social Security," said Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois. "We know that left untouched with no legislative changes, Social Security will make every single payment, with cost-of-living adjustments, for at least 37 years. People seem not to be buying the White House's crisis argument.
But on the same day that the Senate Democrats did their agenda rollout on the second floor of the Capitol, Democrats around the country woke up to a story on the front page of The New York Times in which Senator Hillary Clinton, the putative front-runner for the presidential nomination in 2008, was blowing kisses to the anti-abortion movement.
"There is an opportunity for people of faith to find common ground in this debate," she said. "We should be able to agree that we want every child born in this country to be wanted, cherished and loved."
Not everyone loved or cherished this dash toward the middle, even if it only confirmed that the senator is planning a White House 2008 bid. What some regard as inevitable political moderation for Clinton, or even a strategic repositioning for the party, others see as treachery.
"My head lifted off my shoulders and spun around, I was so mad," said one pro-choice Democrat, describing her reaction to the story.
The Clinton overture taps in to some recent rumblings in the party that Democrats need to reach out to anti-abortionists. John Kerry has said that the party needs to be more welcoming to anti-abortion Democrats, and Tim Roemer, the anti-abortion former congressman from Indiana, is now a serious candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee, with the backing of some prominent congressional leaders.
In fact, the last item on the Senate Democrats' agenda came under the heading, "Putting Prevention First"; it's a bill intended to reduce the number of abortions by advocating family planning, cutting down on teen pregnancy, and allowing federally funded abstinence programs to discuss contraception.
"The way we feel about it is that abortion should be rare, that anything we can do to prevent unwanted pregnancies, it's a step ahead," said Reid.
"You see why they're doing it," says one pro-choice activist. "But what they don't understand is that by doing this they gain nothing, and lose a lot. … Soft pro-life voters are not going to believe [Clinton]. They are still going to say she wants to kill babies, and all you end up doing is alienating people in the party who are single-issue voters and who give money."
Compared with Clinton's tough speech at the Washington choice march last year, her remarks this week left many people with a taste of retreat in their mouths.
"What some segments of the party are looking for from her is to be like a Ted Kennedy and defend, defend, defend. For her to be no different from everybody else is ridiculous," said one of the people who heard her remarks.
What they want is what they got from the other senator from New York recently.
"There has been some talk about adjusting our position on [Roe v. Wade]," Chuck Schumer said to pro-choicers at a NARAL dinner a couple of weeks ago. "When it comes to choice, we will not retreat. We will stand at the barricades and defend Roe against all comers."
The problem is they're no longer know sure where the comers are coming from.
Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. His column about politics appears each week in the Prospect's online edition.
By Terence Samuel
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved