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TESTING THE WATERS Democrats are busy defining party strategies for 2008

The two architects of the resurgent Democratic Party's capture of the House and Senate last November are now offering blueprints for 2008.

Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel's "The Plan: Big Ideas for America," which he co-wrote with fellow Clinton administration alum Bruce Reed, and New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer's "Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time" present pragmatic proposals aimed at addressing middle-class concerns.

Emanuel speaks of a "new social contract," while Schumer bundles his ideas under a "50 Percent Solution." Though their proposals often differ, each presents concrete ideas for health care, national security, education, energy, taxes and fiscal responsibility.

In doing so, the veteran lawmakers attempt to answer the question -- "What does the Democratic Party stand for?" -- that has dogged the party since President Bill Clinton left office.

The middle class, they argue, is ready for change after dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and anxiety over the disruptive effects of globalization and technology.

"Washington leaves out the middle class. And in the 2008 election, I think the middle class will be up for grabs," said Schumer, who like Emanuel spoke with The Buffalo News about his plan for the future.

Emanuel, whom "West Wing" character Josh Lyman was partly modeled after, put the Democrats' opportunity more rhetorically: "We say in the book that unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who inherited the Depression and created the greatest middle class the world has seen, Bush inherited the longest period of growth and gave the middle class its greatest anxiety."

New York's senior senator and the two-term Chicago congressman have seen their political stock rise after leading the Democratic Party's senatorial and congressional campaign committees, respectively, to stunning victories. They were credited with recruiting candidates who appealed to red state voters, while outraising and outhustling their Republican counterparts.

But both Jewish Democrats -- Schumer now ranks third in the Democratic leadership in the Senate, Emanuel fourth in the House -- believe it's hardly a time for the party to rest on its laurels. The election results, they say, were more a referendum on an unpopular president than an embrace of their party.

Nor do Emanuel or Schumer spare Democrats from considerable criticism while lambasting Republican policies and tactics of recent years.

"We talked about [the middle class], but we didn't listen to them," Schumer said. "Even worse, we were under the illusion that they liked what we had to say. In the 2004 election, the middle class was the runaway bride, and Democrats were left standing at the altar."

While both say they are encouraged by early steps taken by the Democratically controlled Congress, they think there's a long way to go.

"I think we're doing pretty well," Schumer said. "We're enacting [laws], so the public knows we're for real. We're finally holding the president's feet to the fire, which the public demanded. But in terms of actually getting closer to a platform or a vision, we're not there yet."

Both plans, for instance, offer considerable tax relief to the middle class. Schumer would reduce property taxes used to fund education by half by rolling back the highest income-tax brackets to mid-1990s levels.

College would be easier to attend, with Emanuel's plan providing universal college access.

Both dramatically reduce dependence on foreign oil, with Schumer doubling miles-per-gallon standards, and Emanuel promoting hybrid cars and alternative fuels to slash gasoline usage in half over the next decade.

Neither plan, however, addresses government corruption or, most notably, the Iraq War, two issues that drove people to the polls in November. And if what's happening in Baghdad is the dominant political issue a year from now as it is today, it could relegate other issues to the back burner.

But Schumer doesn't expect that to happen, believing President Bush will be forced to withdraw half of the troops by the 2008 election. If not, Schumer still expects Democrats to continue being political beneficiaries of an unpopular war.

Emanuel said the war's fluid situation as he worked on the book made it too difficult to project conditions on the ground by the time of publication.

"The goal of the book," Emanuel said, "was to look into the horizon."

> Meet the Baileys

Schumer's conversationally written, red-, white- and blue-covered "Positively American" is divided into two parts.

In "Meet the Baileys," readers are introduced to Joe Bailey, an insurance adjustor, and his wife, Eileen, a part-time medical office worker. The fictitious Long Island middle-class couple -- they "could be in Cheektowaga," Schumer said -- with three kids in public school have been, to hear Schumer tell it, indispensable in guiding his political decisions.

"I have run my political life with the Baileys in mind," he said. "Joe and Eileen Bailey are real to me."

Schumer even advised senatorial candidates he recruited to pick their own Joe and Eileen Bailey, and start talking to them.

The Baileys, Schumer said, are anxious about sweeping changes in technology that allow jobs to be more easily outsourced, terrorists to be more lethal and children to be encountered by predators on the Internet.

"The average American is having a difficult time adjusting. All these changes make it harder for them to be optimistic. Technology has caused all of this, and government hasn't responded well," Schumer said.

He says Joe and Eileen Bailey won't vote for Democrats if they aren't strong on defense. He speaks of creating an international force to enter hot spots, using more mobile fighting forces and doing a better job of securing the country from biological, nuclear and chemical attacks.

The second part of the book focuses on what Schumer calls "our kitchen table compact," in which he spells out his "50 percent solution" in 11 key areas.

He wants to increase, by half, the fight against terrorism, reading and math scores and the admittance of legal immigrants. He wants to cut by the same amount dependence on foreign oil, cancer mortality, abortions, illegal immigration, property taxes that fund education, childhood obesity and children's access to Internet pornography.

"The Republicans still have a vision and a platform; it will be similar to '04. It's just not a very good one," Schumer predicted. "But my fear is, no matter who the candidates are, an outdated platform will beat no platform. So we need to have an effective one."

> Clinton redux

Emanuel and Reed were top advisers during Clinton's two terms in office, where they absorbed their former boss's willingness to defy the left-right divide in crafting policy solutions.

Their slim and easily digestible book, "The Plan," attempts a similar approach.

"The whole goal here is to think through an agenda, and an intellectual framework, for the party," Emanuel said.

Some have suggested "The Plan" is meant to do for Democrats what Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" did for Republicans in 1994. But Emanuel says the book is more like a second edition to "Putting People First," a 1992 book about candidate Clinton's agenda that Reed, now president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, helped write.

" 'The Plan' is five big new ideas based on America's oldest value, responsibility. We offer a new bargain, and ask a new patriotism in return -- doing more for Americans and asking Americans to do more for their country," the authors write.

"The Plan" seeks to instill a sense of national purpose. It creates universal citizen service, and offers guaranteed universal children's health care, universal college access and universal retirement savings.

Emanuel and Reed also call for a return to fiscal responsibility and an end to corporate welfare; tax reform for the middle class; a "smarter and tougher" strategy to fight terrorism; and slashing gasoline consumption by half in a decade.

"There are a number of documents coming out, and I think that ['The Plan'] is one of the best," Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., told The News. "Obviously, I have a very high regard for Rahm and Bruce, and I think they hit a lot of the issues that we're going to have to deal with."

Some of the ideas in the book showed up first in the Democratic Leadership Council's "American Dream Initiative" that Clinton helped lead in 2005. They have reappeared in her speeches, and her proposed policies, as she travels the country running for president.

> Left-center divide

The effort to address middle-class concerns is a potentially winning strategy, said Michael Fauntroy, professor of public policy at George Mason University, and the author of "Republicans and the Black Vote."

"If you want to capture the majority of voters, you are going to have to show a commitment to the center ideologically, and a commitment to middle-class voters," Fauntroy said. "If the Democrats are able to do that, I think they will be in the position to dominate for a generation or more."

But Emanuel's and Schumer's remedies don't go far enough for some on the left, including Katrina vanden Heufel, editor of The Nation.

Vanden Heufel favors a "bolder politics" on trade, budget and health care issues, wants the whole notion of a "war on terrorism" challenged, and greater importance assigned to such international challenges as global warming, pandemics, global inequality and genocide. And she wants the troops out of Iraq now.

Emanuel downplays ideological divides within the party.

"My view is, 'Don't tell me if it's left or center. . . . I'm more interested in finding where you can make advances," Emanuel said.

Emanuel and Schumer are confident they've done just that. Time will tell whether the road map to victory they created in taking back Capitol Hill will now lead to the White House.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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