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US Democrats Seek to Sharpen Message

Liberal activists met in Washington this past week to try to find ways to unify the opposition Democratic Party, and provide new alternatives to the policies put forward by President Bush and his Republican supporters in Congress.

After two straight narrow losses in presidential elections, liberal activists are trying to find ways to make opposition Democrats more effective in countering President Bush and the Republican majority in Congress.

Among those who came to share ideas was the new head of the Democratic Party, former Vermont Governor and presidential contender Howard Dean.

Mr. Dean was a favorite among liberal activists during the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries.

"We have suffered a couple of serious defeats,” Mr. Dean said. “But we are energized, because we know that our vision for America is much better than the dark, difficult and dishonest vision that the Republican Party offers America."

That kind of tough anti-Republican rhetoric got a warm reception from the liberal activists, who met at a downtown Washington hotel. But many other Democrats are concerned that the party must do more than just criticize the president and his Republican supporters in Congress.

Democratic pollster and political strategist Stanley Greenberg says a recent public opinion poll conducted for the liberal group, Campaign for America's Future, showed growing unease with the president's agenda.

But Mr. Greenberg also says the survey found public disappointment that opposition Democrats are not doing more to offer alternatives on key domestic issues, like pension reform and rising fuel prices.

"I believe, if an election were held tomorrow, this would produce an election with significant Democratic gains. But they will only get half the gains that are possible, until they also advance their values and their ideas as part of this battle," added Mr. Greenberg.

Democratic strategists say the party needs to talk more about national security issues, and present its own plan to reform the government pension system, known as Social Security. President Bush has made reform of the system his top domestic priority.

Recent public opinion polls have given President Bush some of the lowest public approval ratings of his presidency, down to 46 percent at one point.

During a recent news conference, President Bush rejected the notion that he is losing political momentum in trying to push his domestic agenda through the Congress.

Mr. Bush blames Democrats for blocking his plan to reform the Social Security pension system, and says Republicans are doing the hard work of offering proposals on a wide range of domestic issues, while Democrats merely obstruct and criticize.

George W. Bush
"One thing is for certain, the party that I represent is leading. I mean, we are willing to take the lead and say, 'here is what we believe, here is why we believe it,'" said Mr. Bush.

Historians note that it is not unusual for U.S. presidents to hit a rough patch in their second four-year term.

"The president has found that he, too, is a victim of second term blues,” noted Allan Lichtman, a presidential scholar at the American University in Washington. “Second terms have been very, very difficult for presidents. You instantly become a lame duck, and the president overestimated the mandate that he had coming out of a very, very close presidential election."

But Professor Lichtman also agrees with those who say the Democrats must do more to present a comprehensive agenda, before they can take advantage of the president's political difficulties.

"So the Democrats have been successful in blocking the president's initiatives. Where the Democrats have missed their opportunity is to formulate a positive program of their own," Mr. Lichtman said.

Both parties are already gearing up for their next national test, the 2006 midterm congressional elections.