Everybody knows the Democrats aren't on their game. The Republicans know it, which is why they're not yet panicking, despite trailing badly in the polls and carrying enough political baggage to sink an ocean liner. The voters know it, which is why, disgusted as they are with the GOP's wretched performance, they've expressed no great confidence that the other side will do much better. The Democrats themselves know it, and still they can't seem to get things together for November and beyond.
One explanation relates to electoral nuts and bolts -- specifically, the open feud between Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel over how to spend the party's existing campaign war chest. Dean favors structural party building in the states, while Emanuel wants the money for individual 2006 House races. The first is a long-range, 50-state organizational strategy; the latter is a short-run effort to win immediate control of Congress by selective investment of resources. Dean is also dueling with former Clinton advisor Harold Ickes over how, and under what auspices, to set up high-tech databases for identifying Democratic voters and getting them to the polls.
Much of this internecine warfare has to do with the fact that many veteran party regulars have never become reconciled to the Dean takeover of the DNC; it's an outsider-versus-insiders controversy. In the long run, Dean is right. While the Republicans built their organization from the ground up over many years, the Democrats neglected theirs and fell far behind in modern campaign tactics. But Dean's critics have a point: Money, the mother's milk of politics in America, will be a crucial need for Democrats in the fall races. Without it, the heavily funded GOP will buy still another election. A compromise of some sort should be possible to work out; it has to be, if the party is not to be written off as a joke.
Tactics and strategy, however, are the least of the Democrats' problems. The fundamental question is, to what end will tactical and strategic efforts be put? And here, compromise is less possible -- if not totally impossible. The fact is, Democrats have been undergoing a slow-motion identity crisis for almost 40 years now. It has been successfully swept under the rug from time to time -- notably in 1974 and 1992, and again in 2004 -- but it always reemerges.
Democrats began to wonder who they were during the Vietnam War, when portions of a steadfast Cold War party became fervently antiwar. The fault lines widened in the late 1970s and 1980s, when economic-policy differences over the role of government in the context of creeping globalization produced free-market and economic-nationalist factions. Bill Clinton successfully papered over the divisions enough to win two presidential elections in the 1990s, but at the cost of accentuating the party's ideological schizophrenia and undermining its congressional dominance.
The Clinton strategy of triangulation -- portraying the Republicans as too far right and his own Democrats in Congress as too far left, while assuming a difference-splitting position in the center -- preserved an administration that carried the Democratic label, but blurred the party's identity beyond recognition. Democrats are now paying the price for those philosophically confused third-way years. Some want to reaffirm the fence-straddling Clinton approach and recapture its imagined glory; that's the essence of the nascent restoration campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton. Others want to return to an earlier period of Democratic success when the party consistently won and governed on a center-left platform.
Most Democrats, officeholders and rank-and-file alike, are, broadly speaking, on the ideological left. Aside from a self-described "moderate" minority devoted to interventionist policies abroad and market-oriented, pro-corporate policies at home (the Democratic Leadership Council, or DLC, wing), a majority of Democrats reflect their party's liberal or progressive, and occasionally populist, tradition. However, not all of them are willing to admit it. And here, the fear factor comes into play.
The lingering aftereffects of the Chicago convention of 1968 and the McGovern campaign of 1972, as well as the trauma of the losing Reagan years, have driven a wedge between those Democrats (mostly rank-and-file activists) who want to assert their core beliefs and those (mostly party leaders and Washington officeholders) who are reluctant to do so. The party's leadership may be center-left at heart, but it can't bring itself to consistently articulate that position on the issues. National Democrats have brainwashed themselves into believing that being perceived as anything other than moderate-to-conservative is the political kiss of death.
That's fine with the Republican leadership, which knows what it believes and isn't afraid to say so. The GOP realizes that leading Democrats have internalized the line that America is basically a conservative country innately averse to liberals. It knows it can use that weakness to silence the opposition or pressure it into a meek acceptance of right-wing policies -- whether in support of preemptive war, high-end tax cuts, government deregulation or privatized federal entitlement programs.
That, in essence, is what's wrong with the Democrats. It's not that they don't know what they think; it's that they do, but are (with some exceptions) too intimidated to express it explicitly. Until the party of FDR stops dissembling and recaptures the courage of its convictions, until it talks the talk and walks the walk, until it decides to fight openly for progressive principles instead of hiding or disguising them, the drift and the doubts will persist. And looking lamely for some bland, inoffensive, non-ideological (and preferably southern) governor to run for president in 2008 won't erase the image problem.
For the immediate future -- that is, the 2006 congressional campaign -- Democrats will need to pose a credible alternative to the years of conservative Republican governance. They will need to craft a coherent center-left program that all but quislings of the Lieberman variety can rally around. Surely, most Democratic candidates can endorse a measured withdrawal from Iraq, some form of national health insurance, a basic revision of the flawed Medicare drug benefit and an increase in the national minimum wage. Throw in for good measure a serious investigation of oil-industry pricing policies. In short, there's plenty to do, and it's past time for Democrats to stand up and be Democrats.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
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