By David Rebovich
The Democratic Party’s nine presidential candidates have been getting their fair share of coverage these days, for criticizing Pres. George W. Bush, attacking each other, and in a few cases simply for having the chutzpah to run. At first the spirited repartee between the candidates made good theater, but soon party regulars began to worry. Are the Democrats’ criticisms of the President too mean-spirited and will they cause a backlash? Are their attacks of each other so harsh that the eventual nominee will be so bloodied that he will have trouble competing against an even unpopular incumbent? And, will that nominee’s policy positions be so jumbled after trying to placate so many different groups in a multi-candidate primary that they won’t appeal much to the average voter?
These are concerns that Democrats should have about their party’s very crowded and sometimes brutal presidential primary. But in the meantime those same Democrats should be reassured that their party itself is in good hands, organizationally, financially and in terms of policy development. One strong set of those hands belongs to New Jersey’s own Bob Menendez, the 13th district congressman who is in his sixth term in the US House of Representatives.
In a fairly short time Menendez has become Chairman of the prestigious and powerful Democratic Caucus, making him the third ranking member of his party in the House. Following a two-year term as Vice Chair of the Caucus, this former school board member, mayor of Union City, assemblyman and state senator is now the highest ranking Latino in the history of the United States Congress. Those who have known and worked with Menendez over the years describe him as intelligent, articulate, principled and often passionate about causes involving constituents and the nation as a whole.
In his years in Washington Menendez has grown into a thinker and lawmaker of enormous substance, a clear and confident proponent of his party’s core principles, a highly demanded speaker, and a top candidate recruiter and fund-raiser. These attributes are especially important for the Chair of the Democratic Caucus given the upcoming 2004 presidential and congressional elections. And, given the great pressure on the Democrats to cut into the Republicans’ control of the national government.
Catching up with the Congressman last week in Jersey City, Menendez spoke candidly about the current national political environment and decisively about what the Democrats need to do to prepare for the 2004 campaigns. When talking to such a high-ranking official, the inclination is to brace oneself for some high velocity political spin. But Menendez was all business, freely offering a clinical analysis of how his party needs to hone its message. By which he means justifying its criticisms of Pres. Bush and the Republicans, specifying the Democrats’ own priorities and goals, and explaining how they will achieve them. The Congressman also discussed the need for Democrats to do a more careful job recruiting quality candidates in key congressional districts and a better job supporting them if the party expects to make some gains.
The Democrats do stand to make gains, Menendez believes, because of Pres. Bush’s self-induced problems and his declining approval ratings. In a discussion that was analytical rather than ideological, the Congressman expressed grave concerns about the huge anticipated deficit in this year’s federal budget, the burgeoning national debt, and an economic recovery that is not producing the good jobs so many Americans need. Then there are continued and growing questions about Iraq - the number of US troops lost, the high cost of the war, the inability of the Administration to gain widespread international support for the reconstruction effort, and the questions about the President’s credibility on weapons of mass destruction, leaks in the CIA, and corporations profiting from the war and attempt to rebuild Iraq.
Menendez sees citizens’ questions about the economy, Iraq, and the President’s credibility as creating a political environment in which a Democratic presidential candidate and many of his party’s challengers for House seats can win in November 2004. He noted that if campaign donations are any indication, it’s clear that Democrats want change and believe their party can succeed. The nine Democratic presidential candidates have raised about the same total amount as Pres. Bush, himself a record setting fund-raiser. And, the Congressman also insisted that after the nominating convention next August, his party’s presidential nominee can count on Democratic National Committee support so the party’s message hits the airwaves immediately - something that didn’t happen in 2000 - and runs regularly right through Election Day.
But to have a chance of beating Pres. Bush and regaining the House, the Democrats need a message and quality candidates to deliver that message. As Chair of the Democratic Caucus, Menendez plays a pivotal role in developing his party’s agenda in the House, so it isn’t a surprise that he also has lots of ideas about what the Democrats should focus on in 2004. In addition, Menendez has been traveling around the country, meeting with his party’s presidential hopefuls, speaking to state and local party organizations, and exchanging ideas with leaders and rank and file members. In his meeting with me, Menendez discussed what he regarded as key issues for 2004 - stimulating the economy, education, America’s role in the world, and domestic security.
Like most of his fellow Democrats, Menendez objected to Pres. Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy. The Congressman favors returning more tax dollars to middle and working class families. This approach will help cut into the huge deficit that the President’s plan made even larger. It will also provide revenue for some needed programs and put money into the hands of cash-strapped Americans who will spend it and help jump start the economy. Menendez also supports a tax incentive plan to accelerate the expansion of small businesses, a plan that such businesses want. In addition, he is calling for major investments in the transportation network to provide short-term jobs in construction, architecture and engineering and to build the infrastructure on which long-term growth can occur.
Menendez noted that in his role as Vice Chair and Chair of the Democratic Caucus he has “...encouraged colleagues to reach out to businesses and show that we can be allies.” He cited financial services legislation, SEC fee reductions, bankruptcy reform and intellectual property law as areas where he and the Democrats have supported pro-business and pro-investor policies. And, Menendez wants much more spent on research and development and job training, pointing out the need to prepare workers for the emerging economy and for a lifetime of learning. More businesses can also be helped by “unbundling” huge defense contracts and allowing smaller firms a better chance to obtain work. Menendez could not resist mentioning that business people and average citizens need to realize that while Republicans may preach about the need for fiscal conservatism, a balanced budget, and economic growth, the GOP has delivered the opposite in the Bush Administration.
On education, Menendez sees fundamental differences between the two parties. The Republicans’ much ballyhooed “No Child Left Behind” Act has turned out to be a lot of talk and trouble. Exceptional schools, including some in New Jersey, have been deemed “failures” due to illogical standards. The Republican have not provided the necessary funds to support the Act, leaving the state’s some $9 billion short. Nor has the President done anything to help the nation’s college students, whereas the Democrats are looking to broaden eligibility for financial aid and to provide more flexibility in obtaining grants and awards. Menendez also objects to the Republicans’ plan of putting Head Start funds in block grants. The Congressman and many of his Democratic colleagues want the federal government to provide more funding for after care programs, since so many parents work beyond the end of the school day.
Menendez also challenges the Republicans’ claim to having more wisdom in foreign affairs. He agrees with the notion that America’s national interests and security should not be handicapped or limited by other nations. But, claims the Congressman, there are too many challenges in the today’s world for the United States to go it alone. Pres. Bush’s policy of preemptive war in Iraq, which few other nations support, has resulted in enormous expenditures and an ever increasing loss of American lives. As such, the United States needs to internationalize its efforts. Menendez warned, “We cannot tell other nations, including our allies, that it’s our way or the highway.”
The Congressman finds fault with the President’s approach to domestic security as well and has some serious recommendations to make in this area. The Department of Homeland Security was created with much fanfare, but it is a huge bureaucracy that is struggling to accomplish its mission.
Menendez’s 13th district is across the river from Ground Zero and lost about 200 residents on 9/11. The 13th also includes such important and sensitive sites as Port Elizabeth/Port Newark, the Holland Tunnel, and many major petroleum facilities. The Congressman advocates more federal funding for first-responders. Police, firefighters and emergency personnel need new manuals, special training, and equipment to deal with terrorist threats and incidents. Menendez also wants consideration given to using advanced technology to monitor sealed cargo containers and better intelligence through the cooperation of federal agencies.
Menendez expects his party’s House candidates to make these points and more in next year’s campaigns. In the meantime, he is working with Nancy Pelosi - the Minority Leader is the House - and other key Democrats on recruiting quality candidates. Menendez noted that last year the Democrats lost some House races because the party didn’t properly perform background research on own their candidates who subsequently got hammered by Republicans in the general election. As their party looks to 2004, its leaders are thoroughly vetting congressional aspirants and helping various state, county and local party organizations find good matches between prospective candidates and districts. Menendez is also one of the “Frontline Democrats,” a group created by Pelosi whose members are helping raise $1 million for seventeen Democratic incumbents running in targeted districts.
As the third ranking Democrat in the House, Menendez is of course optimistic about his party’s prospects next year. And if Pres. Bush’s poll numbers continue to slide and the economy languishes, Democrats will be positioned to do well up and down the ticket. This doesn’t mean, however, that Menendez and his party don’t have some important issues to address within their own ranks as they prepare for the 2004 campaign.