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Published: Saturday, 8/9/2003

Democrats say people are angry; polls disagree

WASHINGTON - Anger management is the Democrats' latest political strategy.

At the moment, it's not working.

If you listen to Howard Dean, Joseph Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, Bob Graham, Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton, Dick Gephardt, and Dennis Kucinich, Americans are angry and getting angrier.

People are angry, say the candidates, about many things. They include: the lack of jobs; corporate greed; deception about the Iraq war's cost, length, and rationale; the mounting evidence America is not getting the next generation ready for the challenges ahead, and the tax cuts that are giving us a monumental deficit.

Mostly, say the candidates, Americans are getting angry at President Bush.

That, according to the polls, is wishful thinking.

Largely because of the economy, Mr. Bush is vulnerable in his re-election bid next year, but he is still leader of the pack.

The administration's lack of interest in spending more on homeland security may indicate that its top priority is not the war on terror - the money is not where the administration's mouth is on this one. Americans still feel vulnerable, especially with new warnings of more terror attacks on U.S. soil. But there is little if any personal anger toward Mr. Bush. Americans want a strong leader who at least talks a good game on battling the terrorists, and Mr. Bush is doing that.

There is huge debate in Washington about administration posturing over the war in Iraq, the use of questionable data, and the shunting aside of CIA misgivings about so-called evidence of Saddam Hussein's weaponry. Debate, too, about whether Mr. Bush might have been too eager for a victory in Iraq (with Osama bin Laden still on the lam), unprepared for the war's aftermath, and unsure about how to handle the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran - the other two members of the “axis of evil.”

But polls show that the American people overall are not really very interested in the debate. The opinion of most Americans is that Mr. Bush was right to go to war against Iraq for whatever reasons he wanted to cite.

There might well be broad-based dismay if, as many in Washington believe, Colin Powell will leave his job as secretary of state in a second Bush term. But a sunburned Mr. Bush, with Mr. Powell at his side in steamy Crawford, Texas, eliminated this as an immediate concern for Americans when he said scornfully that this is just “August speculation” inside the Beltway. Of course, August speculation often turns out to be correct. But for the time being, Mr. Bush plucked out and batted aside a possible thorn.

There has been increasing concern about the true status of Mr. Bush's vaunted “compassionate conservatism.” He doesn't get on well with a lot of black leaders, partly because he is against affirmative action. His stance against gay marriage may be popular with most Americans, but there are questions about whether his plea for tolerance is only rhetorical. And what about Attorney General John Ashcroft's assault on civil liberties? Many are anxious, but Mr. Bush is cagily using a string of political events to try to reassure moderate Americans that there will be no wholesale efforts in a second Bush term to rein in civil rights or gay rights.

So, yes, there is growing uneasiness about many of Mr. Bush's policies among Democrats and many independent voters, who will determine the election next year. Republicans, for the most part, love the man. And even among most Democrats there is - as yet - no real anger about Mr. Bush personally. He is seen as amiable, a fairly hard worker, smarter than he used to be, and dedicated to making America strong. He says what many want to hear. He isn't strident. He grins a lot and cracks jokes.

The gamble by the Democrats' posse of nine that a groundswell of anger will turn Mr. Bush out of office seems slightly desperate at this point. Of course, if all nine repeatedly tell all the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire how angry they should be, maybe those voters will get angry. It will depend entirely on whether they have jobs and their out-of-school children have jobs and how secure they feel financially.

Right now, nobody can predict that.



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