Congressional Democrats hit President Bush on Wednesday for his Iraq policies and proposal to overhaul Social Security, hoping their vigorous response to his State of the Union speech would fuel a turnabout from their election setbacks last fall.
The prime-time address offered center stage to the president. Democrats, however, were hoping their retorts would cast them as a moderate but energetic alternative to Bush and the Republicans who control Congress.
“We all know that the United States cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and continue to be viewed as an occupying force,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in the televised response she delivered after Bush’s remarks.
“Neither should we slip out the back door, falsely declaring victory but leaving chaos,” she said. “We have never heard a clear plan from this administration for ending our presence in Iraq.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who shared the response with Pelosi, said Bush’s Social Security plans sounded more like “Social Security roulette” than reform.
“Democrats are all for giving Americans more of a say and more choices when it comes to their retirement savings. But that doesn’t mean taking Social Security’s guarantee and gambling with it. And that’s coming from a senator who represents Las Vegas,” Reid said.
Pushing ‘old-fashioned moral values’
Reid said Bush should join Democrats in fighting for better job training, improved education and more affordable health care. Instead, he said, Bush offered “the same old ideology.”
Such issues “are about old-fashioned moral values that don’t get talked about much in Washington,” Reid said.
The comments underscored Democratic attempts to attract the segment of Americans who have told pollsters that morality is a major factor in how they vote.
“We can make sure America lives up to its legacy as a land of opportunity if the president is willing to join hands and build from the center,” Reid said.
Pelosi spoke of having met with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and with wounded soldiers in military hospitals.
“They remind us of our responsibility to build a future worthy of their sacrifice,” she said.
Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, responded to the Democratic response.
“On a night when millions of Americans came together in applauding President Bush’s goals of winning the war on terror, growing our economy and preserving Social Security, Harry Reid and the Democrats offered only politically motivated attacks and obstruction,” Mehlman said. “Democrat leaders provided a window into the state of their party tonight, showcasing pessimism over progress.”
Other Democrats chime in
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said Bush “did not mention how many more lives will be lost because we still have no timetable for leaving Iraq. And he did not mention how his plans for Social Security dramatically cut benefits across the board and make the challenge worse.”
House Democrats invited about 15 constituents, including senior citizens, to the House galleries as a symbol of their opposition to Bush’s Social Security plans. Democrats also planned a news conference Thursday at a memorial to the father of Social Security, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Reaching out to Latinos, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., delivered a Spanish-language response to Bush’s address.
Challenge or opportunity for minority?
Besides re-electing Bush, the Nov. 2 voting increased the small but decisive majorities Republicans hold in Congress. The Republicans also ousted one of the most visible Democrats, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Reid’s predecessor as minority leader.
That has left the lower-profile Pelosi and Reid among the party’s leaders and forced Democrats to ponder what course will best help them regain seats in Congress.
Many in the party think Bush has given Democrats a golden opportunity with his idea of letting beneficiaries divert some Social Security revenues to new personal investment accounts and borrowing money to pay the extra costs.
“The president neither has the mandate he thinks he has or a majority to make policy” because of worries by moderate Republicans, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. “He’s making a mistake on both, which is overreaching.”
Even so, Democrats were volunteering few detailed alternatives to Bush’s proposals. Reid told reporters that without a specific White House blueprint for overhauling Social Security, he saw no need for Democrats to offer “a counterplan to nothing.”
Reid and Pelosi also accused Bush of failing to develop a plan for protecting the country from terrorism and said Democrats wanted more health, education and job training benefits for veterans.
Bush was planning a two-day campaign-style swing, beginning Thursday, to sell his Social Security plan in states with Democratic senators from whom he hopes he can win support.