If Congressional Democrats want to be more than George W. Bush’s punching bag in 2003–and in the critical election year of 2004–they must learn the difference between ambition and opposition. In 2002 Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt opted for ambition, mispositioning themselves for presidential runs by steering clear of fights with the Bush Administration on Iraq, civil liberties and the economy. By sacrificing opportunities to undermine and perhaps even upset the GOP momentum, they rendered Democrats irrelevant, and voters responded accordingly.

Daschle got the hint and folded his presidential bid, but with Gephardt and at least a half-dozen other Senate Democrats exploring 2004 presidential candidacies, 2003 will feature plenty of Capitol Hill showboating. But the proper calculation for a presidential campaign is not necessarily the proper calculation for effective legislative opposition. Indeed, if Democrats want to position their party for electoral success in the future, they’ll have to recognize that their party’s future will be decided by how aggressively they oppose a popular yet vulnerable President. To get it right, Democrats have to approach the 108th Congress a lot more strategically than they did the dismal 107th. To wit, they must:

§ Get back to economic basics. Since Bush became President, 1.8 million manufacturing jobs have been lost, unemployment has soared and confidence in the economy has plummeted. New House minority leader Nancy Pelosi proved her worth by filleting the Administration for allowing 800,000 families to lose unemployment benefits during the holiday season. Bush aides were so rattled they included a tepid extension of benefits in the President’s “jobs and growth” plan. Democrats should hold out for better benefits and mount a fierce fight against the plan’s call for eliminating taxes on dividends and speeding up income-tax cuts for the rich. Some Democrats will shudder when the President accuses the party of engaging in “class warfare.” But smart Democrats will counter by echoing Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders’s line: “The Republicans started waging a class war on working-class and middle-class Americans on January 20, 2001. All we are doing is fighting back on behalf of the victims of Administration policies.”

§ Stop avoiding issues of war and peace. While the majority of Democrats in Congress opposed last fall’s vote to hand Bush a blank check to wage war on Iraq, the party has no coherent stance regarding Iraq, North Korea or the war on terrorism. Instead of letting the agenda be set by Administration apologists like Daschle and Joe Lieberman–another presidential hopeful–senior Senate Democrats like Bob Graham, Dan Inouye and Carl Levin, all foes of the Iraq resolution, should be encouraged to fashion a critique that exposes the true costs of imperial ambitions (which empty the domestic treasury into the Defense Department trough), advance a pragmatic policy that supports containment rather than confrontation and position their party on the side of the multilateral approaches to foreign policy that polls show Americans favor.

§ Fight Medicare privatization. New Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a healthcare industry millionaire, has a lot of ambitious ideas about privatizing Medicare and Medicaid. Frist and the White House will seek to cloak their schemes in complex funding mechanisms, and they’ll try to soften the blow by promising to increase cash flow for states that have historically felt cheated; Congressional Democrats must get some Ross Perot-style charts and start educating voters about how privatization of healthcare programs is as dangerous as privatization of Social Security.

§ Challenge appointments. Bush will probably nominate at least one new Supreme Court Justice in 2003; he has already renominated Charles Pickering and Priscilla Owen, both previously rejected. Bush is also packing nonjudicial positions with extremists on issues ranging from abortion rights to environmental protection. Confirmation fights offer a chance not just to battle bad nominees but to highlight bad policies. Bush’s Treasury Secretary pick, CSX Corporation CEO John Snow, was guaranteed a pension of $2.4 million a year for life, yet the Administration wants to undermine workers’ pension protections. Why not oppose Snow unless he pledges to preserve pension rights for all Americans? Snow’s confirmation hearings also provide a chance to revisit corporate corruption questions Democrats let slide last year.

§ Refuse to let Trent Lott’s resignation end the debate about Republicans and race. With a civil rights voting record that’s as bad as Lott’s, Frist represents only a stylistic shift. Democrats should highlight the hypocrisy by a push for embracing the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights legislation to expand hate crimes laws, ban racial profiling and change the Administration’s education-funding formulas.

§ Build a grand coalition to defend civil liberties. Bob Barr is working with the ACLU, and William Safire is condemning Administration assaults on basic freedoms. Isn’t it time for Democrats to get serious about the Constitution? House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner and ranking Democrat John Conyers have asserted their committee’s right to monitor the Patriot Act’s implications. That’s a start and, with a score of cities passing resolutions urging the act’s repeal, Democrats have plenty of “cover” for a defense of the Bill of Rights.