Thursday, October 13, 2005

Wait ’til Next Year?

There’s an analysis in the New York Times about the Democratic Party’s prospects for 2006.

Suddenly, Democrats see a possibility in 2006 they have long dreamed of: a sweeping midterm election framed around what they describe as the simple choice of change with the Democrats or more of an unpopular status quo with the Republican majority.

[…]

What they need, many Democrats acknowledge, is their own version of the “Contract With America,” the Republican agenda (tax cuts, a balanced budget, a stronger military and an array of internal reforms) that the party campaigned on in the 1994 landslide election, when it won control of the House and the Senate.

“I think Democrats understand we have a great opportunity,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We’ve gotten much better at blocking some of the bad things the Republicans would do, but we know you can’t be a party of long-term majorities unless you put forward the things you would do.”

The article then goes on to say that it’s not easy to dislodge a party entrenched in power in both the House of Representatives and the Senate; that to do so will require the Democrats to come up not just with a series of proposals to counter the Republican agenda but also come up with candidates to run in local elections to defeat Republican incumbents, some who have been in office for years and some who have been gerrymandered into their districts at the hands of Tom DeLay and like-minded state legislatures. That’s a two-fer that will not be easy to pull off.

The idea of coming up with a Democratic “Contract With America” sounds good; the Republicans’ favorite charge is that the Democrats have no ideas except that they “hate” Bush. However, the Contract with America, a slick set of proposals all designed to fit neatly on a bumpersticker, was little more than a bill of goods. What the Republicans did pass from the COA when they got into power was pretty mild, and some of their more bold proposals — a balanced budget and welfare reform, for example — were done under the the hands of Bill Clinton who knew better than anyone since LBJ how to steal thunder. (By the way, how’s that balanced budget thing working out for you now?) It was soon forgotten when they decided to launch an all-out assault on the Clinton administration and ginned up for the impeachment battle in 1998, and then they got as arrogant and corrupt as they accused the Democrats of being. The Democrats will have to come up with more comprehensive ideas on everything from the economy to education reform to defense spending, and they’re going to have to supplant much of the Republican agenda; be proactive rather than just reactive, and they’ll have to come up with specifics rather than just what looks good on a placard at a campaign rally.

As far as recruiting new candidates, it could be interesting to see who chooses to run — and who chooses not to. Already there are noises coming from the Democrats about the Senate race in Ohio; Paul Hackett, the Iraq war veteran who lost a narrow race for the House in a special election in August is, depending on who you talk to, going to run… or is he? Other veterans are testing the waters, too, and there are some candidates who lost in the last go-round who are getting ready to try again. (I personally know of at least one.) There may be a fair number of Republicans who will look at the last five years and decide that it’s just not worth it — it’s time to “spend more time with the family” — and that will mean there’s an open seat in play. Tip O’Neill was right; all politics is local, and the Democrats’ return to majority status in Washington will be engineered by the people running for office in Coral Gables, Florida; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Longmont, Colorado; Perrysburg, Ohio; and every other district in the country. Look where Barack Obama came from; a year ago he was a state legislator in Illinois.

The Republican revolution in 1994 didn’t just spring from the ground fully formed on Election Day; Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay began plotting their take-over long before Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. If the Democrats have any hopes of taking advantage of the current Republican woes, they had better be doing more than just talking about coming up with a strategy. The voters are notorious for having collective ADD — just let one more pretty white woman disappear — and even if Karl Rove ends up sleeping spoons with Benny the Weasel, that’s not going to be enough for the Democrats to win. We have to do more than just shame the Republicans; we have to convince the electorate that the surest way to win is by voting for someone rather than against someone else.