"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Democrats missing a golden opportunity
February 18, 2006

Washington — As the Democratic Party's county chairman in Lancaster, Pa., Bruce Beardsley can't help but cheer the continuing problems faced by President George W. Bush and the Republicans over everything from the Iraq war to lobbying scandals and their bungling of the response to hurricane Katrina.

But the schadenfreude is mixed with worry for the future of his own party. "As the polls indicate, the benefits don't seem to be accruing to the Democrats," said Mr. Beardsley, who fears that a party divided on hot-button issues such as the Iraq war and abortion will not be able to fully capitalize on the problems of its political foes.

With the U.S. electoral machine starting to rev up in anticipation of the mid-term congressional election in November, Democrats are hoping that Mr. Bush's woes will translate into breakthroughs that will allow them to seize back control of the House of Representatives and Senate.

Opinion polls show that Americans are prepared to punish the Republicans, and increasingly see Democrats as likely to do a better job on a range of issues from the economy to health care and education. According to a poll published Feb. 9 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 50 per cent of registered voters said they plan to vote for Democrats in November compared with only 41 per cent for Republicans.

Yet despite the national uproar about domestic eavesdropping, the haunting prisoner-abuse photographs, the decline of U.S. prestige as a world leader, the United Nations demand that the Guantanamo prison be closed and even Vice-President Dick Cheney's recent embarrassing hunting accident, the Democrats still trail the Republicans on the issue of fighting terrorism, and more Americans still think the Republicans have better leaders than their rivals.

When it comes to corruption, many voters see both parties as equally guilty. The result is that Democrats can't take anything for granted.

"The Democrats are very close to squandering an opportunity," said pollster John Zogby, who faults the party for failing to come up with an alternative program to that of the Republicans. "It will not be enough for the Democrats just to not be the Republicans."

"I've never seen two parties so hell bent on losing," Mr. Zogby continued. "The Democrats are in the ascendancy mainly because the Republicans are weak, . . . but in this instance, the Democrats are not coming before the American people with a plan or an agenda, an outline of what they would do."

"The Democrats have yet to speak with a single voice, so they haven't been able to coalesce around a particular individual and, with the nomination process [for a 2008 presidential candidate] still two years away, they're not likely to at this point," said John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

"Democrats would be better served if they had better leaders," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Center. "Democrats win on the issues, but they do not win the test of who has the better leaders."

When asked in the Pew poll who leads among the Democrats, New York Senator Hillary Clinton came in first, with 26 per cent. But the No. 2 spot on the list went to her husband, Bill Clinton, who left the presidency five years ago and is no longer active in politics. John Kerry was third, followed by a large crowd of other senators and members of Congress.

This lack of focus has provided an opening for the Republicans. "We know what the Democrats are against, but what are they for?" asks Senator Bill Frist, the Republican Majority Leader. "What are their ideas? What are their convictions?"

"It would be nice to speak with a unified voice, but in my 30 years in politics, I've never seen it happen until we have a nominee" for president, said James Blanchard, the former Democratic governor of Michigan and U.S. ambassador to Canada under Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Blanchard admits that the Republicans have been more successful than the Democrats in shaping the political landscape for their benefit.

"It's clear that the Republicans have used abortion, guns and religion as wedge issues to break up our natural majority, just as they've used race."

Ever the optimist, and the partisan, Mr. Blanchard still predicts that the Democrats will make major gains in both the House and the Senate in mid-term races. "We probably have a better chance than people realize. It's going to be a tidal wave against the Republicans."

No issue threatens to boomerang on the Democrats as much as the Iraq war. While Americans grow tired of the bloody conflict and blame Mr. Bush for the steady trickle of U.S. casualties, the Democrats are profoundly split on the issue and provide no coherent policy alternative.

When John Murtha, a respected Democratic congressman and Vietnam veteran, called in December for U.S. troops to be pulled out of Iraq as soon as possible, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi enthusiastically agreed. But Ike Skelton, a fellow congressman from Missouri and the leading Democrat on the House armed services committee, retorted that pulling out troops too soon would turn Iraq into "a snake pit for terrorists."

Ms. Pelosi has attempted to turn this disunity into a virtue, insisting that disagreement within the party is healthy. "Within a democracy we all have a responsibility to speak out," she said.

"It's the Democratic Party, there's dynamism, there's differences of opinion," she said. "That's what we take pride in."

Mr. Beardsley, the Pennsylvania Democrat, does not see a way out on this issue. "The party is divided on Iraq. Half of the party says we ought to get out and get out now. But the other half says it's been a terrible mistake but it would be irresponsible to cut and run right now."

"They are tongue-tied on the war in Iraq," said Mr. Zogby, the pollster. "Their base is looking for strong opposition and a way home, and the Democrats are almost in a position where they're handing this election to the Republicans."

"I think Iraq is the one we can't agree on," Mr. Beardsley concluded.

There are other issues where the Democrats must tread lightly. Although they criticize the Bush administration for growing budget deficits and the growth of government spending, they don't dare mention the need to raise taxes, a surefire way of losing votes in the United States.

Then there are the values issues. Many of the most dedicated backers of the Democratic Party are liberals who support freedom of choice for women on abortion, favour same-sex marriage and lobbied heavily against the new Supreme Court appointee, Samuel Alito.

But Mr. Beardsley admits that abortion is one question that the Democrats are best to avoid in a place like Lancaster County, which is socially very conservative and where Christian fundamentalism is strong. "It's an issue we'd rather not focus on," he said. Even Ms. Clinton has been known to step delicately around the issue.

"The challenge for the Democrats is to come up with a clear, cohesive message that you can put on a bumper sticker," said Robert Champ Crocker, a young Democratic lawyer from rural Alabama. "The Republicans have always been very successful at doing that. The Democrats have got to come up with a message that people can relate to."

Mr. Crocker agrees the Democrats have to tread carefully when it comes to the values issues. "Democrats in Alabama and the South need to tell people, ‘I am a Christian, I own a gun and I am a Democrat.' Republicans have quite skillfully made people believe you can't be a Christian and be a Democrat."

"I do despair," Mr. Crocker said. "I think the Democratic Party needs to be united, but the Democratic Party also is a diverse party and it cuts across a lot of different lines."

Mr. Geer, the political scientist, suggests that the Democrats might try to take a page from the Republicans in 1994, when they drafted their Contract For America that promised tax cuts and term limits and is credited with helping them win control of the House.

The Democrats are working on their own election platform for the fall, which is expected to deal with health care, political reform, jobs and energy. But as of yet, there's no agreement on what the document should include.

In the 435-seat House, the Republicans currently hold a lead of only 30 seats. With the power of incumbency and the impact of electoral gerrymandering, a shift of 15 seats is possible but far from a fait accompli.

In the Senate, where only one-third of the 100 senators are up for re-election this fall, Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, expects that the Democrats can pick up two or more seats.

"But for Democrats to regain control of the Senate, almost everything has to fall just right for them," Mr. Sabato said. "In politics, very occasionally these things happen, but only rarely do all the dominoes fall in one direction."

The Republicans control the Senate with 55 seats compared with 44 Democrats. There is one Independent.

In the end, the Democrats may get lucky and anti-Bush sentiment could overwhelm their own lack of leadership and policy. "It would be better for them if they had a rallying leader like Newt Gingrich, like the Republicans did back in ‘94. But for the most part, when people are angry, they don't vote for someone, they vote against the status quo," Mr. Kohut said.

There's much to agree with and much we must disavow. The republican party doesn't stand for anything either but the difference is their rank and file are ok with it. Talk of balancing the budget, term limits, line-item vetoes have been replaced with endless excuses for endless failures and the faithful eat it up. The irony is that the media demands that dems stand for something when they don't require the same from republicans.

The country is broke (fiscally and morally), what's left for either party to stand for? Decades of tax cuts and moutains of debt have all but destoyed the American Empire - and the GOP is proud of what they've done.