In his battles with Democrats, President Bush has always had one trump card in his hand that goes a long way toward explaining why he keeps winning. Too many Democrats, from the top down, can't shake their belief that Bush and his party have moved so far to the radical right that they are teetering on a precipice, always one misstep or overreach away from seeing their popularity melt away like an ice cream cone in the Texas sun.

They're right about the radical part, but they're wrong about everything else. They are especially, hopelessly, heartbreakingly wrong in their touchingly naive belief that Bush will somehow do himself in with his bad decisions. All they have to do, they seem to think, is wait him out rather than offer a compelling alternative. Two searingly close election losses later, both houses of Congress lost, the give-'em-enough-rope school is still patting itself on the back over each downward blip in the president's ratings.

And yes, Bush's ratings have been falling. His domestic agenda centers on a full-frontal attack on Social Security, and he signed off on the shameless Republican effort to politicize the Terri Schiavo case. The Iraq war has receded, gas prices have risen, job creation has remained sluggish, and consumer confidence has begun to slip. His approval rating has plummeted to 45 percent in the latest Gallup poll, the lowest of his presidency.

Fresh from his reelection triumph, Bush proclaimed, "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." Well, as the ballooning deficit numbers prove, Bush loves to misspend, and that's exactly what he's done with his political capital in recent months. In a 2000 interview with Time, Bush said of Bill Clinton that "he tried to spend capital on issues that he didn't have any capital on at first, like health care." Now Bush is repeating the error, trying to transfer political capital he accrued through widespread public support for the war on terror to a libertarian assault on Social Security and to biblical literalist attacks on secular constitutionalism that make most Americans feeling queasy.

The problem is that what goes down can come up just as easily--especially when the opposing party appears to be locked in a state of suspended animation. Democrats are desperately in need of a positive reform agenda. Blogger Ezra Klein recently highlighted polling data showing that public support for the Democrats on Social Security has remained stagnant; support for the congressional Democratic leadership has actually dropped. On some issues, they are too defensive (Social Security); on others, too conciliatory (the flawed bankruptcy bill that preserved loopholes for the wealthy); and on yet others, embarrassingly absent (the DeLay-Frist-Bush extra-legal Schiavo fiasco). They lead a party that seems perpetually reactive, stuck in a fetal crouch, with no coherent agenda--and few core beliefs--of its own.

To some extent, this is a function of being so completely shut out of power. But not entirely. Take Social Security, where the Democrats have demonstrated impressive unity in opposing Bush's misguided privatization scheme (amazingly, all but one Democratic senator, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, have come out against privatization). Bush is more than halfway through his 60-day Bamboozlepalooza tour (as Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has dubbed it) of rigged "town halls," and support for privatization continues to slip; the White House these days seems to be spending most of its political capital browbeating nervous Republican politicians into retracting statements that indicate they think his plan is kaput.

Gleeful liberal pundits argue that the Dems are winning, and should avoid the temptation to make a counter offer. They're wrong. Privatization is all but dead, but the potential fiscal problems with Social Security remain. Now is the time, as Bush is reeling, for Democrats to offer a take-it-or-leave-it plan, based on Democratic principles of progressivity and sustainability, to fix Social Security while ruling out the virus of private accounts. Bush will undoubtedly walk away, proving that he cares only about privatization, not about actually fixing the system's fiscal solvency crunch. That's fine, because Dems will then have a cudgel with which to beat the Republicans in the 2006 elections. Politically, it's not going to be enough for Dems to say they stopped Bush's misguided reform, unless the public believes they offer something better in its place.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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