WASHINGTON – Three months into a mid-term election year that is meant to gauge the president's success, Democrats are walking a fine line between making political headway by criticizing administration policy and angering voters who support President Bush's leadership in the war on terror.
Six months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle gave a ringing endorsement to the president's handling of the war.
"I think the president has laid out very clearly the intent of the administration and our country this morning and I think the American people are with him," Daschle said Monday following a commemoration ceremony at the White House with more than 1,000 guests.
The remark is the latest retreat by Daschle from his criticism two weeks ago when he said the war was expanding without direction and success was in doubt. The remarks drew harsh rebuke from both voters and Republicans who saw them as inappropriate election year partisanship.
Democrats had hoped their big campaign weapon this year would be the president's handling of the economy, and what some Democrats dubbed "the Bush recession." But now, with economic recovery underway, Democrats admitted in a strategy memo that "Democrats have not made gains on the economy."
House and Senate Democratic candidates are increasingly worried that Bush's political strength from the war and economic recovery will be impossible for them to counter, leaving them without a positive agenda of their own.
And Democrats like former Clinton adviser James Carville, Gore campaign strategist Bob Schrum and Clinton-Gore pollster Stan Greenberg are openly frustrated.
In the 10-page memo, the Clinton insiders chide congressional Democrats to stop playing defense and develop an agenda to excite people.
"Democrats cannot win from a crouch... The country now waits for a clear direction from Democrats... The nation wants to know whether the Democrats have ideas," reads the memo.
"This is not a time for tactics, smallness, hit and run, or caution," it continues.
For his part, Daschle told the National League of Cities on Monday that it's time to revisit various issues that were pushed aside by the attacks, namely Social Security and health care reform.
In his speech, Daschle focused on several issues dear to municipal budget writers and said Democrats support more federal spending than the president.
"Sept. 11 changed many things profoundly, but it didn’t change the fact that we need to keep our roads strong, and our bridges well maintained," Daschle said. "Sept. 11 also didn't change the fact that people still need to drink clean water."
Homegrown issues may find traction, particularly if reports like one Monday revealing massive increases in health care costs continue to reveal cracks in domestic policy.
The Health and Human Services' Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported that by 2011, Americans are expected to spend $9,216 per person on health care, about double what they spent in 2000. Health costs are expected to grow at a rate of 7.3 percent annually between now and 2011, it said.
But with polls indicating that a majority of Americans think the country is on the right track and approval ratings for the military campaign hovering around 90 percent, Democrats will likely have to take drastic action to draw the public's attention away from the president's conduct of the war.