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Democrats need a lot more than just a message

By PHILIP GAILEY
Published March 19, 2006


As midterm election years go, 2006 should be a sweet one for Democrats. Instead of seizing this opportunity to reclaim control of Congress, however, Democrats are pathetically wringing their hands and babbling about not having a message.

Can't come up with a message? Are they blind and deaf - or just political cowards?

Here's the message: The country is in a mess because of Republican policies and incompetence. Most Americans have soured on the Iraq war and the president who started it. They are disgusted with ethics rot on Capitol Hill exposed by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal that has Republicans running for the hills. And they have little confidence in the competence of the Bush-Cheney administration when it comes to waging war, protecting the homefront against terrorists, responding to a hurricane disaster or reining in runaway spending. If voters want to change course, they should elect Democrats to Congress.

Then comes the hard part. Democrats will have to do something that requires political backbone, which has been sorely lacking in Washington. They need to throw away their "talking points" script, forget about focus groups and engage voters in some straight talk about what they would do to end the war, restore fiscal sanity in Congress, improve homeland security and repair the damage Republicans have done at home and abroad. Voters might like to know exactly what Democrats would do differently.

If Democrats don't know what they stand for by now, then it should be obvious that they don't stand for anything except what the pollsters and focus groups tell them is politically safe. What good is a message if it is not braced with principle and conviction?

Frankly, Democrats need more than just a message. They also need to put forward some new messengers. The Washington regulars have worn out their welcome with a lot of voters. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., recently told the Washington Post: "The comment I hear is, "I'd really like to vote for you guys, but I can't stand the folks I see on TV.' "

Could they perhaps have been talking about Sen. John Kerry dashing back to Washington from Switzerland on a private jet to lead a filibuster of Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court? Kerry's filibuster was an embarrassing flop, as was the performance of Sens. Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden in their interrogation of Alito at his confirmation hearings.

The party's top congressional leaders, Harry Reid in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House, probably would be fired if they worked for Donald Trump. And Howard Dean, the foot-in-mouth chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has a knack for making himself the issue every time he opens his mouth and says something that makes Democrats wince and Republicans gloat.

"Since assuming their positions after the last election, the three have appeared somewhere between useless and disastrous as party leaders," Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate.com, wrote in the Financial Times. "Individually, they lack substance and policy smarts (Ms. Pelosi); coherence and force (Mr. Reid); and steadiness and mainstream appeal (Mr. Dean). Collectively, they convey an image of liberal elitism, disarray and crabbiness."

The greatest dilemma Democrats face is what to say about the Iraq war. Most of them voted for the resolution authorizing the use of military force. Three years later, Iraq is a quagmire and public support for the war and President Bush has collapsed. But Democrats are still afraid to take on this president on national security.

It has been easy for Democrats to criticize Bush's bungling of the war. But when Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a former Marine who supported the decision to invade Iraq, called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as soon as possible, his Democratic colleagues patted him on the shoulder but refused to support his proposal.

Democrats also have rarely missed a chance to criticize Bush for conducting warrantless domestic surveillance. But when Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, last week introduced a resolution to censure (not impeach) the president for illegal wiretapping, he was treated as an embarrassment to his party. His fellow Democrats wanted no part of his effort to hold Bush accountable.

Forget about a message. A lot of voters are wondering on what big issue, if any, are Democrats willing to stand up to George W. Bush?

Philip Gailey's e-mail address is gailey@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 18, 2006, 16:43:02]


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