Democrats on Day Three of Bush Assault

The Bush administration must take firm action to return fiscal responsibility to the government and restore trust in the economy, centrist Democrats were told by party leaders Tuesday.

That same message was delivered by one of the party's veterans and one of its newest prominent voices.

"Unfortunately, this White House tends to heed the shouts and whispers of the extreme right, telling them to stall, to dodge, to stand in the way of real reform," said House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt. He said he proposed an economic summit nine months ago and the White House rejected the idea.

"Last week, former Treasury Secretary (Robert) Rubin renewed the call for a summit," Gephardt said. "This time, for the good of the country, I hope they take us up on it."

Earlier in the day, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina told the Democratic Leadership Council that fiscal responsibility has vanished from the government since Republicans claimed the White House from the Clinton administration.

"Washington can't ask businesses to do more unless we live up to our responsibilities as well," the senator said. "We can't just complain about Enron's books. We have a duty to put our own books in order."

The federal government has returned to deficit spending and the parties are bickering about whether that was caused by Bush's tax cut or by a combination of the war on terror and an economic downturn.

Edwards said "the economy is fundamentally strong" and will recover well with the right policies. But the bigger question, he said, is whether people have faith "that their hard work means something, their hard-earned tax dollars go for something."

During this three-day meeting, Democratic presidential hopefuls are making their case to centrist Democrats on how they would frame the debate on the economy.

Top Democrats have contrasted the booming stock market, federal surpluses and job growth of the roaring 1990s with the tax cuts, volatile stocks and shrinking economy since Bill Clinton left office.

"In just eighteen months, this administration has unraveled the fiscal discipline it took us eight years to build," Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman told the Democratic Leadership Council's annual policy meeting.

Gephardt talked about his efforts to bridge the gap between the pro-business DLC and Democrats like himself who work closely with unions.

And he compared Bush to his father, the former president, who he said didn't talk about the nation's economic troubles and didn't act on them in losing the 1992 presidential election to Clinton.

"George W. Bush seems to know things aren't working. So he talks about it and talks about it and talks about it. But he doesn't do anything about it," Gephardt, D-Mo., said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry also spoke to the group Monday.

"There is no economic leadership coming from the White House," Daschle said. "If they won't lead, Democrats will."

"In the span of a year, this administration has turned fiscal responsibility on its ear," said Kerry, "turning a budget surplus into a budget with endless deficits spurred on by an irresponsible and unfairly structured tax cut."

Republican national chairman Marc Racicot said the Democrats' criticism rang hollow coming from senators who had failed to pass a budget during a time of war and economic uncertainty. He described that failure as "an abdication of responsibility and failure of leadership."

DLC members call themselves New Democrats, who believe in blending a pro-business approach with traditional Democratic values. They say it's fair to criticize the Bush administration for being too closely allied with big business.

But some were still grumbling about an economic populist tone that crept into the presidential campaign of Gore, who did not attend the event and has not decided whether he will run.

Gore aide Jano Cabrera said Monday the former vice president's campaign had embraced the same values as the New Democrats.

"They have a theory in search of the facts," Cabrera said of Gore's critics in the group. "The fact is that Al Gore's message won more votes than any other Democratic candidate in the history of the country."