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Sen. Bayh Chosen to Lead Centrist Democrats, Extends Hand to Bush

February 08, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) assumed the chairmanship of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council on Wednesday, promising to work with President Bush "in any way humanly possible" while pledging to offer alternatives if Bush "veers too far from the mainstream."

His speech continued the Democratic search for a strategy to respond to the president--who has seized the political offensive with a generally sure-footed first few weeks. Bayh's remarks, along with a 10-point issue agenda the DLC released Wednesday, highlighted the potential for cooperation between Bush and the centrist Democrats, as well as the likelihood of conflict.

"We . . . stand ready to hold the president accountable for the pledges that he made to the American people: to be a uniter, not a divider; to be both compassionate as well as conservative," Bayh declared.

The DLC has emerged as the leading voice of Democratic centrists since it was founded after Walter F. Mondale's landslide defeat to President Reagan in 1984. Both President Clinton and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) used its chairmanship as a springboard to national prominence, and many Democrats consider Bayh--a former Indiana governor whose father also served the state in the Senate--a possible presidential contender in 2004.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush repeatedly suggested he would try to work with the DLC. On some issues, particularly education and Medicare reform, Bush took positions closer to the DLC's than did Al Gore, although the former vice president long had been active in the group. Now, Bush is counting on support from DLC members in Congress to help pass some of those initiatives.

The new DLC policy blueprint should give Bush some encouragement on that front. About half of the "10 big ideas" that the DLC said should dominate the Democratic agenda in the coming years overlap substantially with Bush proposals. These ideas include plans to introduce more competition into Medicare by giving a larger role to private insurers; using a tax credit to help those without health insurance purchase it; expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement throughout South America; and increasing the reliance on market incentives--rather than regulatory directives--to clean the environment.

The largest area of convergence between Bush and the DLC is on education. Lieberman and Bayh have introduced reform legislation embodying the same basic principle that Bush has proposed: giving states more flexibility in spending federal education dollars in return for more rigorous testing to measure student performance. Bush himself might not have changed a word when Bayh said Wednesday: "We need to free up our local schools and states to experiment with more flexibility but hold them accountable for results."

Still, key differences separate Bush from the centrist Democrats. On education, for instance, Bayh said Wednesday that while centrist Democrats support efforts to intensify competition within the public schools--such as increasing the number of charter schools--they remain staunchly opposed to Bush's proposal for private school vouchers. On trade, the Democrats place more emphasis than Bush on including labor and environmental standards in any expansion of NAFTA (although they do not place as great a priority on those issues as their party's liberal wing).

Bayh etched out sharper differences on economic issues--particularly Bush's proposal for a $1.6-trillion tax cut. Bayh said he would support broad-based tax relief, but he joined more liberal Democrats in arguing that Bush's proposal would cost too much.

"Many of us do not want to go back to the days of deficits, we don't want to go back to the days of increasing the national debt . . . and we don't want to return to the time of borrow-and-spend economics," he said.

In another warning sign for Bush, the DLC's 10-point agenda downplayed earlier support for allowing workers to divert part of their Social Security payroll tax into individual investment accounts--one of Bush's priorities. Instead, the DLC placed greater emphasis on the competing idea championed in the campaign by Gore: providing workers tax credits to create investment accounts as a supplement to Social Security.

Al From, the DLC's chief executive officer, acknowledged that the shift reflected a "cooling" among centrist Democrats toward partial privatization of Social Security--a trend that could make it difficult for Bush to build a congressional majority for that idea.

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