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The Sounds of Silence From Democrats on the Hot-Button Issues

By Stuart Rothenberg

If you really want to see how times have changed across the nation in general, and on Capitol Hill in particular, all you need to do is consider both the way high-profile Democrats have reacted to recent events and how the Democrats are proceeding in Congress. It's stunning, and that's not mere hyperbole.

Thirty-two students and faculty members gunned down at Virginia Tech, and, except for New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D), there is hardly a word from gun control enthusiasts and liberal officeholders arguing that guns are a problem or insisting on new gun control legislation.

It wasn't that long ago that you couldn't have kept top Democratic Congressional leaders, or gun control activists, from getting in front of a television camera to demand limits on gun ownership and to hyperventilate about the threat that guns pose to children and families.

Yet after the Virginia Tech shootings, calls for major new gun control legislation from the likes of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have been nonexistent.

One could attribute this result to the success of the National Rifle Association, which has utterly demolished its opponents and fundamentally changed the gun debate in this country, except for the fact that gun control is not the only issue where Democrats and their liberal allies appear to have backed off confrontation.

The same undoubtedly can be said about abortion. Ten years ago, a Supreme Court decision that upheld any kind of restriction on abortion rights would have been met with a frenzy of anger and protestation from pro-choice forces both in and out of Congress. There would have been threats directed at judges and politicians, and predictions of the demise of Roe v. Wade.

Instead, while Democratic presidential candidates (and other Democratic elected officials) expressed their disappointment with the decision, the general reaction from the pro-choice community has been muted, if not inaudible.

"I am disappointed," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), adding, "Criminalizing doctors for performing medically necessary procedures to save a woman's life or protect her health is wrong. The court's decision is a significant step backwards."

Disappointed? Wow, them there are fightin' words, Madam Speaker. I can only imagine what language Congresswoman Pelosi might have used 10 or 15 years ago if the Supreme Court had issued the same opinion back then.

It's pretty much the same tune on taxes and the minimum wage.

Yes, on gaining their majorities in Congress, Democrats immediately pushed for an increase in the minimum wage, a time-honored Democratic tradition. But the Senate (and some key Democratic Senators) resisted the House's approach, and after a little huffing and puffing on the House side, it looks as if Democrats have agreed on a package that also includes $4.8 billion in tax cuts for small businesses over 10 years.

Initially, House Democrats, including Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), insisted on a "clean bill" that excluded anything but the minimum-wage hike. But at the end of the day, and with surprisingly little kicking and screaming, House liberals caved to the inevitability of a compromise approach with the Senate.

Even the Democratic approach on the alternative minimum tax smells more cautious than in the past, as Democrats talk of eliminating the tax for families making less than $250,000 and cutting the AMT tax bite for families with incomes of $250,000 to $500,000.

So far, in other words, there is little or no evidence that Democratic leaders are being dragged away from their post-election strategy of keeping toward the political center and demonstrating their moderation.

In the fall, well before the November elections, an influential Democrat told me that Congressional Democrats would keep the party's more ideological faithful happy through a series of hearings during which they would excoriate the Bush administration, while at the same time pushing a legislative agenda with broad appeal. So far, that's happening just as scripted.

Will it continue? I'm betting it will.

The closer we move toward the presidential election, the more the incentive for Democrats to keep to the script, especially as long as national polls show their party strong, President Bush unpopular and voters still itching for political change.

Sure, the presidential race will get more partisan and ideological juices flowing over the next few months, and we likely will hear more inflammatory comments as presidential hopefuls play to the base (and as Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich tries to impeach people he doesn't like), but even the most liberal activists seem more intent on getting back the White House than on pushing a legislative agenda that might threaten the party's advantage next fall.

Speaker Pelosi's trip to Syria and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) comment that "we are losing the war" notwithstanding, Democrats have made few mistakes since they won control of both chambers of Congress in November, and they have done nothing to diminish their standing or their prospects.

If Democrats stay on their current path, I am already itching to see how they will address guns, abortion, gay rights and taxes, to mention just a few hot-button issues, if they win the White House and increase their Congressional majorities even slightly next year. Now that would be fascinating to watch.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the The Rothenberg Political Report, and a regular columnist for Roll Call Newspaper. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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