The Turbo-Charged Challenger

Democrats are supposed to be testosterone-challenged.

You want bold, risky ideas—tax cuts, invasions? Try Republican George W. Bush instead. But last week, a Democrat displayed some swagger.

Here's how Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., sounded: "I do not think we're going to defeat George Bush by trimming around the edges and, in effect, being 'Bush Lite.' " For a taste of Bush Lite, try the Dick Gephardt of last October: "In response to the president's desire for congressional support ... I have worked to draft a resolution" authorizing the president to use force in Iraq. Gephardt led the fight for the resolution among his fellow Democrats. Now he's running for president, and that part of his past may not sit so well with Democrats looking for a sharp, clear alternative to Bush.

If a strong contrast is what Democrats want, they could try the current Gephardt, who says, "I think we've got to have a bright-line alternative" to Bush—an alternative such as Gephardt's hugely expensive plan to provide health insurance for virtually every American, to give states and cities much-needed financial relief, and to pump money into the economy. "Over $300 billion a year will find its way into workers' pockets that they can use to spend on things and make investments," Gephardt says.

How would Gephardt pay for all this? "We pay for it by repealing the Bush tax cuts," the former House Democratic leader told the Service Employees International Union in New York City. He's not talking about the new tax cuts that Bush is proposing, but the tax cuts that Congress passed back in 2001. Gephardt pledged, "Legislation repealing the Bush tax cuts and using the money to pay for universal health care will be the first bill I send to Congress as president of the United States."

Republicans wasted no time in attacking Gephardt's plan as a tax hike. "Today, Dick Gephardt, as the centerpiece of his campaign, promised the American people that the first thing he would do in office is raise taxes by over $2 trillion," Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke said. "That's pretty big." But Gephardt had a response ready. "There hasn't been one job created by these tax cuts. There hasn't been anything that's good that's happened to this economy."

Something strange is going on. A president with a 70 percent job-approval rating is going around the country trying to sell tax cuts. Why should he have to bother?

The public is not very enthusiastic about Bush's tax cuts. Only 42 percent of Americans think they are a good idea, according to the latest Gallup Poll. A slightly higher proportion, 47 percent, call the tax cuts a bad idea.

Why so little enthusiasm? One word: recession. People's view of the economy has become markedly more negative in the past month. In late March, just after the war started, 41 percent of Americans thought the economy was in recession. Now, 56 percent think so.

Bush is calling his tax cuts a "jobs-and-growth package." So, are the people who are most worried about recession enthusiastic about his proposed tax cuts? Nope.

Americans who think the country is in a recession solidly oppose the tax cuts, 57 percent to 35 percent. The tax cuts are more popular among those who think the country is not in a recession. Those people favor the tax cuts, 51 percent to 35 percent.

The link between a negative view of the economy and a negative view of the tax cuts holds up across party lines. Republicans who think the country is in recession are split over the Bush tax cuts. Only Republicans who think the country is not in recession overwhelmingly favor the cuts.

The poor economy is undermining Bush's argument for tax cuts. In bad times, people think the country can't afford tax cuts, particularly when they see government services, such as education, being cut.

Democrats like Gephardt are betting that the economy will replace terrorism as the nation's No. 1 concern. In fact, it already has. When asked by Gallup which issue will be more important—the economy or national security—when they cast their ballots for president next year, Americans say the economy, 53 percent to 36 percent.

Nevertheless, the big payoff for Democrats hasn't quite happened. When pitted against an unnamed Democratic challenger, Bush is still ahead, but not quite by a majority (49 percent to 36 percent). Bush leads because he is 50 points ahead among voters most concerned about national security. He trails by about 15 points among voters whose top concern is the economy. Meaning: The economy does not yet pay off for Democrats as much as national security pays off for Bush.

Could Gephardt change that dynamic? The rap on the former Democratic House leader is that he's yesterday's man. He tried to run for president once before and failed. He tried to become House speaker and failed. Last month, we saw the new Gephardt, charged with testosterone. "I challenge every candidate for president to offer a health care plan that covers every American, stimulates the economy, and creates jobs," he said in New York. "And I challenge them to tell us exactly how they would pay for it."

talk, but what about the deficit? Gephardt's answer, in essence, is to hell with the deficit. If President Bush can ignore the deficit, so can Democrats.