Debbie Wasserman Schultz is an attractive, articulate, energetic and poised member of Congress from Florida who now also heads the Democratic National Committee.
President Barack Obama saw the feisty, 44-year-old softball star who plays political hardball as just what he needed to get his message across to the voters in 2012.
There is only one difficulty. As a member of a new breed on Capitol Hill, the message she seems intent on delivering is decidedly old -- it is, in fact, a recitation of alleged Republican flaws that her party has based its sermons on for most of its modern history.
According to Wasserman Schultz, Republicans are waging war on women and are against old folks, the middle class and the poor. The GOP, she charges, is against coherent immigration reform, refuses to negotiate a rational solution to the crushing national debt, and would provide tax breaks only for the wealthy and would destroy Medicare. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, and several other prospects seem not to believe in American exceptionalism.
"Are you saying they are unpatriotic?" asked a reporter at a recent Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
"Oh no, of course not," Wasserman Schultz replied quickly, noting that she was only referring to a newspaper piece by Romney in which he condemned bailing out the auto industry. If Obama had not done so, she added, we all would be driving foreign cars today with no alternative.
So how do we fix things, and pull the thorns from the most crucial issues? Wasserman Schultz fails to answer, just as the president seems to advocate fixing this and that without telling us how. It appears to be an absence-of-plan strategy, one that puts the onus on the Republicans to make proposals while Democrats stand back and watch them commit suicide.
That may be working, considering that Wasserman Schultz and the White House are thrilled by Democrat Kathy Hochul's victory last week in a New York congressional district long held by Republicans. The issue was a national GOP proposal to alter the basic concept of Medicare and ease the huge strain on the national deficit. Recipients would be given funds with which to buy private insurance rather than providers submitting their claims to the government.
Authored by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and adopted by the GOP-held House, the plan had no chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But it has been seen as a starting point for negotiations. While using this proposal as a political whipping post, neither the White House nor its allies in the Congress have come up with an alternative. In fact, they show little inclination to do so, rather complaining that the Republicans won't sit down with them on this and other issues.
The surprise victory in New York's 26th Congressional District apparently has convinced Democrats that they have a winning issue in Medicare. In the bluntest of terms, it's called "scare the heck out of the old folks." That has been the case in past elections anytime someone had the temerity to suggest entitlement reform. It is utterly irresponsible. The senior lobby goes into panic mode at even the smallest attempt to control the rate of growth of health-care costs, let alone a plan as radical as Ryan's.
Few fiscal experts dispute the need for bringing entitlements into line if the nation's increasing debt is to be controlled. But that takes leadership, and neither Wasserman Schultz nor Obama seems willing to take on that task. How does one negotiate unless the other side has a position? Ryan's proposal is full of holes, but at least it is a proposal. This president has shown a disturbing pattern of making sweeping statements about needs but not offering the details to meet them.
Wasserman Schultz's message is pretty much the same-old-same-old. But as chair of the DNC, her stance is understandable if not terribly admirable. It appears that neither party is ready to depoliticize the key question facing America: solvency. It would be naive if not downright foolish to expect otherwise.
Dan K. Thomasson is former Scripps Howard News Service editor
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