With Democrats sporting a
10-15 percentage point advantage over Republicans in some generic
head-to-head congressional polls, Democrats do appear poised for a
comeback. But for many Democratic supporters who’ve expected gains in
other recent elections, this early optimism is beginning to sound all
Yes, George W. Bush and
Republicans in Congress are weaker than they have been since the Sept.
11, 2001, terror attacks. But many analysts wonder whether the Democrats
are ready to take advantage of the openings that Bush’s imperial style
and administrative ineptitude have created.
Have Democratic Party leaders
learned to fight with sincere passion and to articulate a clear national
message that connects with voters? Have they moved beyond a
sum-of-the-parts, laundry-list message that clangs over the airwaves as
nothing more than bullet points aimed at disparate Democratic
For many observers, the
answer is: Not even close.
But Bush may have given the
Democrats a valuable gift: His actions over five-plus years in office
suggest the outlines of a powerful counter-message.
In essence, the message would
be that Bush has made himself a kind of modern-day monarch who has
exaggerated dangers to scare the American people into a disastrous war
and into surrendering their
liberties; that he is a self-aggrandizing leader who has abrogated the
Constitution and the Bill of Rights through claims of “plenary” – or
unlimited – powers as Commander in Chief; that he has transformed
Americans from citizens to subjects.
Fancying himself the “unitary
executive,” Bush even has gone beyond what Sen. Russ Feingold has
described as “pre-1776 view of the world” to what could be called “a pre-Magna Carta
worldview,” in which torture is winked at and citizens are spied on
without warrants and aren’t even assured trials by jury. [For details,
see Consortiumnews.com's “End
of 'Unalienable Rights'.”
Meanwhile, with only a few
exceptions, the Republican-controlled Congress has failed to conduct
serious oversight of Bush’s actions. Instead, Republican strategists,
such as Karl Rove, have talked openly about their desire for indefinite
GOP control of the federal government, from the White House to Congress
to the courts.
In developing a response to
this Republican arrogance, Democrats could rally the American people
around some of the nation’s most beloved principles, from the concept of
“unalienable rights,” to “the rule of law,” to “the checks and balances”
devised by the Founders as a way of stopping the encroachment of
The Democratic message could
even turn some favorite Republican buzz words against them. For
instance, Bush’s Republican Party is now vulnerable to a charge it has
become the party of “Big (Wasteful) Government, Big Deficits, Big
Brother and the Big Lie.”
By targeting the GOP’s “Four
Bigs,” the Democratic message would have the potential to reshape the
electoral landscape – transcending business-as-usual politics and
creating common ground among liberals, centrists and traditional
The Democrats could be the
ones standing for effective and competent government, fiscal
responsibility, traditional constitutional principles, and
But if the Democrats don’t
act aggressively in defining themselves and redefining the Republicans,
the problem is sure to grow more critical with each passing electoral
defeat. That’s because, since the 1994 GOP victories, Republicans have
become America’s default party.
In a national election where
there’s no overwhelming Democratic advantage, Republicans have built the
broad messaging themes and the political-media infrastructure to deliver
winning margins in key races.
Even after five electoral
defeats, congressional Democrats still don’t seem to grasp this changed
paradigm. Democratic leaders have approached national campaigns almost
like they are the incumbents, as if they can play it safe, run out the
clock and then eke out marginal victories. But it’s the Republicans who
have learned to win the marginal races.
Democrats remain stuck in the
mode of reacting to the message of the day, instead of planning ahead to
create a larger, compelling national narrative – and developing the
means to get that storyline consistently to the voters.
Lacking the national media
apparatus of the Republicans and fearful of the attack politics mastered
by GOP operatives over three decades, Democrats have sought again and
again to find “electable” candidates who are supposed to be immune from
Without a clear and unified
national message, Democrats also have suffered from having candidates
focus entire campaigns on disparate local messages. Local candidates
frequently even have to run against the national party.
And, according to the New
York Times, Democrats are slipping again into this pattern in 2006 with
Democratic candidates across the country “reading
from a stack of
different scripts.” These candidates, according to the Times, observe
that “the party is far from settling on an overarching theme that will
work” nationwide. [NYT, March 6, 2006]
political strategists defend this approach with the old cliché that all
politics is local, this strategy carries a heavy burden. Forced to fend
for themselves often in hostile terrain, many Democratic candidates end
up on the defensive.
In the end, after
all the triangulating and
finessing, Democrats come across as a party that doesn’t know what it
stands for or doesn’t dare talk straight with the American people.
For instance, a Washington
Post-ABC News poll found that while 65 percent of Americans think Bush
lacks a clear plan for handling the Iraq War, 70 percent made that
judgment about Democrats. [Washington Post, March 7, 2006]
With Democrats showing
confusion and indecision, Republicans have been free to craft an
unflattering national narrative about the Democrats – that they are
elitist Volvo-driving liberal snobs who look down on ordinary working
families; they are weak on defense and disinterested in the security of
the American people; they are obstructionists with no answers, only
Until Democrats figure out a
national message that will counter this ugly caricature – and develop a
viable media apparatus to deliver it – they can’t expect to win another
national election, short of a complete Republican meltdown.
Sensing the opportunity and
feeling the frustration, online Democratic activists in the liberal
blogosphere are challenging Party leaders from coast to coast.
Many online Democratic
activists, for instance, slammed efforts of Democratic leaders to
Paul Hackett, an Iraq War veteran who strongly opposes the war, out
of the Ohio Democratic Senate primary. Hackett’s departure clears
the field for Rep. Sherrod Brown, a seven-term congressman and the
preferred candidate of inside-the-Beltway Democrats.
It’s not that Rep. Brown is
unappealing to the Democratic base. In fact, Brown has a solid
progressive record fighting for workers’ rights and social justice. He
even wears a lapel pin with a yellow canary in a cage instead of the
standard Congressional pin to remind him of the struggles workers have
endured to win better safety standards.
But Hackett had won the
hearts of many activists by running a no-nonsense, tough-talking
campaign for the open seat in Ohio’s 2nd District – solid
Republican territory where Hackett nearly won last year in a special
Hackett’s forced exit from
the Senate race infuriated many online activists who blamed Party
leadership for failing to support a candidate who, despite being a
political novice, spoke with conviction and displayed the courage of his
Hackett was the model
candidate for those on the Left who feel that Democrats need to campaign
with clear, no-frills messages.
But Ohio isn’t the only place
where activists are in revolt.
In Connecticut, Sen. Joe
Lieberman – who last won reelection in 2000 with 63 percent of the vote
when he was also on the ballot as Al Gore’s running mate – is facing a
primary challenge from a Connecticut businessman, Ned Lamont.
Lamont’s candidacy is fed by
grassroots objections to Lieberman’s support of the Iraq War as well as
his backing for other Bush initiatives, including free trade and Bush’s
faith-based initiative. Lamont is opposed to the Iraq War and is
campaigning on the charge that Lieberman has shifted too far right.
Until now, Lieberman’s
campaign has tried to ignore the primary challenge. But a recent New
York Times profile of Lamont’s campaign may be the first signal that
Lieberman faces more than token opposition in the primary battle.
And in Montana, where
Democrats hope to unseat conservative Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, the
Democratic primary pits grassroots darling State Sen. Jon Tester against
the establishment candidate State Auditor John Morrison. National
Democratic leaders prefer Morrison mainly because he has won statewide
and is therefore viewed as more electable.
But the Democratic base
prefers Tester, who is an organic farmer and a man from more humble
roots. He came out against Samuel Alito’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme
Court and has spoken out against the Bush administration’s tolerance of
torture. He also supports focusing America’s Iraq policy on bringing
U.S. troops home – though he has stopped short of supporting immediate
Morrison’s position on Iraq
is – no doubt by design – less clear. But the base prefers Tester for
his ordinary manner and his authentic voice. He uses clear and direct
language to speak out on issues, a style in line with what the base
yearns for and what the Democrats may need to connect with the American
These three races are just a
few of the primary battles in which the activist base is pressing the
Democratic leadership to go all in and fight to win rather than try to
eke out victories on the margins with safe, establishment-friendly
candidates – a strategy that has failed to help boost Democrats in
This year, the stakes are
higher because the prospects for Democratic gains are real.
On paper, 2006 should be a
year when Republicans are on the defensive. They must campaign against a
backdrop of embarrassing political missteps and scandals – including the
deteriorating situation in Iraq, the Katrina debacle, the Abramoff
scandal and the Dubai ports debate.
Republicans also face other
historical disadvantages – including traditionally bad electoral results
for the sixth year of a party’s presidential term. Plus, they’ve been in
power for more than 10 years and may face a natural fatigue factor among
their core supporters. At the same time, Democrats should be hungrier
And, as these factors pile
up, there are early signals that the Dems are set up for some gains
almost no matter what they do.
The Cook Political Report – a
journal that analyzes political races around the country – projects 10
Republican House seats as “toss ups” against only two “toss up”
Democratic House seats. Altogether, they rate 46 Republican House seats
as competitive against only 20 competitive Democratic House seats.
This means that for the
Democrats to pick up the 15 seats they need for a 218 House majority,
they’ll have to hold most of their own competitive races and hope to win
15 to 20 out of the 46 competitive Republican House seats. Many see this
as remote – doable only if Democrats do a better job speaking to voters
and earning their trust.
Nevertheless, a 5-to-1
advantage in “toss up” races and a better than 2-to-1 advantage in the
number of competitive races should signal Democratic House gains in
In the campaign for the
Senate, Cook rates six Republican seats as “toss ups” against only one
Democratic “toss up” seat. However, in the Senate, Democrats are
defending three open seats compared with only one open Republican seat.
And, according to Cook, Democrats have more races that could become more
competitive if national trends start breaking against the Democrats.
So, for Democrats to retake
the Senate where they face a 45-55 disadvantage, they’ll have to just
about run the table in the competitive races, while holding all their
open seats. Here again, this could happen only if Democrats succeed in
connecting with voters with a clearer national narrative of why voters
should trust Democrats with governing.
Cook also rates 10 Republican
governor seats as a “toss up” or “lean Democratic” against only one
Democratic governor seat rated as a “toss up.” Based on where most of
these competitive governor races are, including solid blue states like
California, New York, Maryland and Massachusetts, the prospect of Dems
retaking a majority of the governors’ mansions seems to be the easiest
path for Democratic gains in the 2006 midterms.
But the fact that Democrats
appear better positioned to have more success in governor races than in
the national campaigns underscores the trouble the party faces when it
comes to its national messaging. Governor races are less about the party
brand than they are about the individual candidates and the local issues
– from traffic jams to schools.
That’s partly why Democrats
have won governor races in solid red states like Wyoming, Kansas and
Virginia. On the other side, it’s also why Republicans have won
blue-state governor seats in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and California.
Since governor races are
mostly about domestic issues, Democrats should be at their best since
they can focus on basic services like providing health care to kids and
investing in state universities. On the other hand, running for House
and Senate seats expands the issue playing field into foreign policy,
national security and other areas that haven’t been strengths for
Democrats’ Soft Underbelly
On a national level,
Democrats will first need to explain effectively what it means to be a
Democrat, what broad themes and goals they would bring to governing
while still giving individual Democrats room to disagree on the finer
points of policy.
Instead, what has happened
too often is that without a unifying national theme, Democrats argue
among themselves over narrow policies. The quarreling over details, in
turn, creates the image that Democrats are mostly focused on
single-issue politics, not higher principles.
By contrast, Republicans –
with stark messages about “values” and “patriotism” and with a
powerful media apparatus from print to radio to TV to the Internet –
have presented themselves as the party that speaks from the heart to the
American people while painting the Democrats as phonies who have no
clear direction and are weak on national security.
Under this assault for a
generation, Democrats have struggled to hold together their traditional
coalition of supporters. The party has lost ground among Southerners,
rural voters, Catholics, some blue-collar workers and married couples
West Virginia is a perfect
example of what’s gone wrong for Democrats in recent national elections.
Under normal circumstances, West Virginia should be part of the
Since the Great Depression,
West Virginia had only voted for Republican presidential candidates in
three landslide Republican victories – Eisenhower in 1956, Nixon in 1972
and Reagan in 1984. Jimmy Carter won the state in 1980 and Michael
Dukakis won it in 1988 while both candidates were beaten badly elsewhere
in the country.
Then came 2000 when Bush
turned a 15-point Republican deficit in 1996 into a five-point advantage
over Al Gore. John Kerry lost the state in 2004 by 13 points. In
presidential contests, West Virginia has gone from solid blue to solid
red in just two election cycles.
Beyond the narrow
explanations of coal policy and fear of environmental regulations, the
West Virginians – like Americans in other red states – bought into the
pervasive Republican messaging that George W. Bush represented
fundamental American values while Al Gore and John Kerry didn’t.
So, to be competitive again,
the Democrats must both articulate how they – not Bush and his
neoconservative allies – stand for the basic principles of an American
democratic Republic, with its “unalienable rights,” rule of law, and
reliance on reason over ideology.
If Democrats can explain to
the American people how Bush has abused these principles, other details
of the Democratic agenda – from wise use of the environment and balanced
budgets, to protecting the common welfare and civil liberties – would no
longer be viewed as narrow appeals, but part of a comprehensive plan for
a stronger and healthier nation.
Until the Democrats
figure this out and can get their message out, they will face uphill
battles against better-organized and better-funded Republicans. So,
while Republicans may appear down today, the Democrats still have their
work cut out for them.