WASHINGTON, Dec. 8
With President Bush's popularity rating in the stratosphere and the country solidly behind the war on terrorism, Democrats have adopted a delicate strategy for winning control of Congress in next year's elections and positioning themselves for challenging the president in 2004.
They express unwavering support of the war effort. They refrain from even the slightest personal criticism of Mr. Bush. But they are stepping up their attacks on the president's economic and social policies -- on taxes and spending, on health care, on education and, especially, on the administration's response to the recession. This is how Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader, made the case this week: "I have absolutely the greatest respect for the president personally, admire him in many ways. I happen to differ with him on many of his domestic proposals, but I generally share his view about foreign policy currently and what he's attempting to do in Afghanistan. So it's an easy distinction for me to make. I think that most of my colleagues feel the same way."
So, Mr. Daschle was asked, is the president to blame for the recession?
"I don't think the recession is his fault," Mr. Daschle said. "I do believe that efforts that have been made in this administration over the course of the year have contributed to the economic slowdown and to the problems we're now having. I don't think there's any question that the deficits have been created in large measure because of the tax cuts that were passed at the insistence of the administration."
Three prominent Democratic tacticians -- James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Robert Shrum -- described the strategy in detail in an 18-page memorandum, "Politics After the Attack."
"It is important to support the president and set a tone that lacks a sharp partisan quality," the strategists wrote. "Democrats," they declared, must be "committed to fighting terrorism but also committed to addressing the economy and jobs, health care and education."
Weekly polls and focus groups conducted since Sept. 11, they said, indicate that Democrats have a strong hand on pocketbook issues and that "Republican economic policies are oddly out of sync with the national mood currently sweeping America."
Paradoxically, the notion of supporting the president while attacking his policies is exactly the opposite of the Republicans' approach during most of Bill Clinton's presidency. Often reluctant to attack Mr. Clinton's policies, which were generally popular, Republicans concentrated on attacking him personally.
"The Democrats are taking a page out of the Republican playbook and turning it upside down," said Tony Coelho, the former Democratic congressman who ran Al Gore's campaign in the 2000 presidential primaries.
Marshall Wittmann, a political scientist who specializes in Congress and the presidency, said, "Bush is now the anti-Clinton."
The closest a leading Democrat has come to an outright attack on the president since Sept. 11 was when Representative Nita M. Lowey of Westchester County, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was quoted in USA Today referring to the "Bush recession."
In an interview, Ms. Lowey said what she meant was that Mr. Bush would ultimately be judged on the way he handled the recession, and that Mr. Clinton could not be held responsible for it.
When Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House minority leader, was asked in an interview this week about Mr. Bush's responsibility for the recession, he stuck to the party line: criticize the policies, not the president.
"I don't know that you can ever say one figure in history caused a recession," Mr. Gephardt asserted, "but in the last year, his budget, tax and economic policies have been misguided, have been wrong."
The Democratic strategy of focusing on domestic issues seemed to have borne fruit in last month's elections. Democrats won the only governorships at stake, in New Jersey and Virginia, and the races for mayor in Los Angeles and Houston. The only consequential Republican victory was Michael R. Bloomberg's election as mayor of New York, and that race was not fought on partisan ground.
"The American public absolutely will accept well-founded criticism of Bush's domestic policies," said James Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "The elections last month settled that forever."
By a one-vote margin this week, the House voted to give Mr. Bush expanded authority to negotiate trade agreements. But the rest of his domestic agenda remains stalled in Congress, including an economic stimulus package based on corporate tax cuts, education legislation and energy policy.
In an odd way, Mr. Bush has abetted the Democratic strategy by opting to stay out of the political fray in the interest of preserving unity on the war against terrorism. This could work to Mr. Bush's benefit in 2004, many political experts say, but it could hurt his party's chances of retaining control of the House and Senate.
By staying clear of partisan politics, Mr. Wittmann said, Mr. Bush has effectively made Representatives Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, the House majority leader and whip, the leading voices of the Republican Party. Mr. Armey and Mr. Delay, both Texans, are ardent conservatives whose style may seem strident in the swing states and districts that will be decisive in the elections.
"The Democrats are lucky to have DeLay and Armey to shoot at," he said.