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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

A Campaign With (Surprise!) Ideas

The Democrats signal that substance is back.

March 05, 2003|JOHN BALZAR

After 20 years in Congress, practically everything Barbara Boxer has fought for is under political attack. Most of what she stands for is being challenged.

I caught up with Boxer the other day at a Los Angeles school. If she has to, she tells the audience, she'll invite Laura Bush to come here and see the need. The first lady champions the causes of children, so how about these children? Boxer scowls. President Bush's proposed federal budget would cut after-school programs in which children like these find productive things to do while waiting for their working parents to come home. Where is the investment in them?

"He is leaving many children behind." "Reckless." "Callous." "Outrageous."

Across the nation, Democrats are previewing themes for the 2004 campaign. The familiar and incremental shades of gray in our politics are giving way to hard black and white -- and to red-in-the-face too.

Democrat Boxer will be running for a third term in the Senate -- or, more accurately, is running. For a change, the long windup to election day is about more, far more, than raising money, being seen by chummy audiences and attending to old friends who thought they'd been forgotten.

We offer only limited crystal-ball services in this space, but here's another sign that the campaign now getting underway is about actual matters of consequence, perhaps a genuine turning point.

"People have to wake up in this nation," Boxer says when we sit down to talk. "We cannot take for granted the gifts we have. And right now, these gifts are going back to the store, and the refunds are going into the pockets of the privileged."

She pauses and gives herself an approving nod. "Hey, that's pretty good. I just came up with that."

Compare this energetic embrace of substance with what we heard during any of a number of drowsy, tactical California elections of late, including Boxer's last one in 1998 or the recently concluded 2002, yawn, campaign for governor. Ideas were so small that a blank piece of cardboard blown up against the fence could have been mistaken for a campaign placard.

My point here is not directly partisan. There will be time for that later. Boxer doesn't even have a designated opponent yet. In fact, let's make clear: The bite in the senator's remarks is not of her own creation, but the result of George W. Bush's adventurous attempts to reshape the United States and what it stands for.

"In some strange way, he is waking people up," Boxer allows.

Specifics? Take another subject: Boxer has been designated the "Green-team" issues leader among Senate Democrats. She has a diary-style, day-by-day printout of environmental actions and proposals by the Bush administration that she believes represent the retreat from progress. Rolled out on the floor, it measures 34 feet long. A sampler of entries: a proposed 50% cut in Superfund cleanups, a $404-million subsidy for private logging operations on federal lands and a memo from the Environmental Protection Agency to its employees encouraging them to "express support for the president and his programs" when off duty.

Doesn't it seem like ages ago when Ralph Nader and the Greens insisted it didn't matter between the two major political parties?

"People have to wake up," Boxer says, returning to the idea yet again. "People have to help me."

Beyond after-school programs and the environment, Boxer's uncompromising disagreements with the president include abortion, gun control, the confrontation with Iraq, personal privacy in the war on terrorism, taxes ... there's hardly room for it all.

Back in that last century, three or four years ago, it required a good deal of creative energy, and maybe crossed fingers, to try to convince many Americans that their democracy had not been co-opted and their choices had not been diluted. Quick, how many great disagreements about the future can you recall between Bush and Al Gore in 2000?

Now we have a senator who gets 90% ratings by liberal groups versus 5% by conservatives rolling out a 34-page bill of particulars against a 5%-versus-90% administration on just a single issue. Yes, this is California and we are different. But we are not that different.

There is an old saying that Americans get the government they deserve. Perhaps it's not always the case. The 2000 election was a muddle. The 2002 Republican sweep of the federal government was decided by only 41,007 votes in two states that gave the GOP control of the Senate.

But Democrats are running out of excuses. If you listen to Barbara Boxer, sometimes in a democracy you have to put your trust in the people.

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