Democratic leaders attempted to derail what should have been a collegial, bipartisan event in New York last Friday, when Congress held its historic session there to honor New York a year after September 11.
Friday morning, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Republican Senate leader Trent Lott rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and later told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that both Democrat leaders, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt, were expected to be there, but pulled a no show.
Not so, shot back Democratic operatives: neither man had been invited, and due to previous obligations, neither could have made it downtown to Wall Street in time anyway.
In fact, the NYSE had been negotiating with Gephardt and Daschle up until about midnight on Thursday, attempting to get the four leaders onto the balcony to ring the bell. Initially, Daschle had agreed to appear with the Republicans, and then do a brief solo interview on CNN and CNBC. But when Gephardt balked, the Senate Democrat did too. Instead, Daschle did multiple TV appearances from the congressional meeting site at Federal Hall. Neither of the Democrats wanted to be seen in the center of all things capitalistic.
"You could just see the Republican ads showing tight camera shots of Daschle and Gephardt ringing the bell, smiling as stock sales took off," says a Democratic House staffer. "We're the party of corporate responsibility and stock market reform. To ring that bell would make us look like hypocrites. Obviously our Republican colleagues just don't get it. Which is the point we've been making all along on those issues."
Even before the real mid-term elections take hold, the White House appears to be positioning itself for its own campaign in 2004. Bush administration sources say that Karl Rove, the mastermind behind Bush's win in 2000, has dubbed protégé Ken Mehlman, currently White House director of political affairs, to be the campaign manager for the Bush 2004 run.
"It's probably anticlimactic," says a political consultant with ties to the Bush administration. "Ken is probably the only guy right now, other than Rove, who could take this on down the road." Mehlman probably will stay on with the administration until the presidential campaign season really kicks in.
Mehlman directed much of the Bush 2000 political grassroots operations around the country. When Bush blew away the competition in the Iowa caucuses, Mehlman was credited with doing much of that heavy lifting, and later served as Bush's national field director in the fall campaign. "He's going to have to get that same grassroots network up an running again in 2004," says the consultant. "But he's got the background to pull it all together, and it's obvious Rove trusts him."
If there are any questions about Mehlman, they have to center on this White House's ability to rally broadbased public support for administration legislative initiatives. That task has fallen largely to Mehlman and his team, and to date, their success has been mixed. They get high marks for building grassroots support for the initial Bush economic stimulus and tax cut package, but have had difficulties selling the Department of Homeland Security across the country, let alone on Capitol Hill. What's more, they've failed to win attention for what's been a pretty good summer of legislative successes, highlighted by the passage of "fast track" trade authority.
Criticism aside, Mehlman is in the best position to take the reins of the campaign. Joe Allbaugh, now head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed the 2000 campaign and isn't expected back. And it isn't like Mehlman won't have help. White House sources say Rove will most likely return in his capacity as chief strategist, along with longtime Bush confidante Karen Hughes.
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