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Domestic Drift

While the president is trying to conduct a war, the Democrats are trying to find a domestic issue they can exploit.

12:00 AM, May 15, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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DOES ANYBODY care about domestic policy anymore?

President Bush doesn't. He's understandably caught up in the war on terrorism and coping with Middle East troubles, and domestic matters pale in importance. The president gives the impression he'll take the course of least resistance on any domestic issue. If Congress passes it--passes anything--he'll sign it, if only because that's likely to upset the fewest people. Veto a bill? Heaven forbid, that might ruffle feathers.

Democrats don't care either. Yes, they're madly searching for a domestic issue to use against Bush and Republicans. But any issue will do. The Democratic test is not whether an issue is intrinsically important or will deliver a good or service that the country desperately needs. No, the test is exploitability. Will it hurt Republicans in the congressional election this fall? Will it bring down the president's sky-high popularity? If it does either, they'll jump on it. Of course, they haven't found an issue that's certain to deliver on both counts yet.

The public cares even less than Bush and the Democrats. If folks outside Washington felt strongly about an issue, they'd let the Beltway community know, and the powers that be would respond. But the only message that Washington gets these days from the public is apathy and indifference. Forget what voters tell pollsters. The truth is, like Bush, the public senses that foreign and defense policy is what matters now. And this means a patient's bill of rights is marginalized, along with a lot of other legislation.

There are consequences to no one's caring about domestic policy. One is that the loudest voice heard by Congress and the White House comes from narrow special interests. Result: They get their way. Farmers, for example. In a political environment where the voters don't seem concerned about federal spending, Washington's natural inclination to spend more is spurred. Thus farmers have gotten as much as they could possibly want in the way of subsidies--and then some. Where's the outrage? There's a little, but not enough for Bush to have second thoughts about signing the bill, which he did on Monday.

Another group that gains--an even smaller group--is trial lawyers. They're a powerhouse because they give money to candidates like crazy and indeed care about issues affecting them. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle is willing to buck the president, but he caves when the trial lawyers ask for anything. Daschle has held up terrorism insurance because plaintiff's attorneys don't like the caps on liability. And he's made sure a patient's bill of rights has gone nowhere in a House-Senate conference because the White House insists on a bill with liability limits.

There's one other consequence of the national indifference. Some issues are dealt with only to immunize one party or the other, not with the expectation a law might be enacted. A prescription drug benefit for the elderly fits the bill here. House Republicans intend to pass one before the Memorial Day recess. It will be less costly than the Democratic version that clears the Senate. And what happens after that is probably nothing at all. Each side will settle for having voted for a drug benefit. Neither will be pressured to compromise and get a benefit actually put into law.

Republicans have an advantage amidst the apathy. They benefit from the few issues the public does care about now: national security, foreign affairs, and the military. Naturally, GOP candidates have been told by Karl Rove, the White House political adviser, that they should emphasize these issues above all. Democrats do better on issues such as health care, the environment, Enron, Social Security, and Medicare. So they'll talk about these. The trouble is the public isn't likely to be aroused by any of them.

Democrats have a solution, one they've used with great success before. It's to accuse Republicans of wanting to end the Social Security system as we now know it. True, the president and congressional Republicans have a plan that would let workers invest a small part of their payroll tax in the stock market. But it isn't even under consideration by Congress this year. All other issues having failed, Democrats are turning to this hardy, but not particularly relevant, perennial, forced to seek any port in a storm of apathy.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.