Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Change is a Noun and a Verb

Last Friday, I posted about (lack of) change within the Republican Party in response to growing public dissatisfaction with its policies and (lack of) accomplishments. Turnabout is fair play. Democrats also face public dissatisfaction and a push for reform to make them a more attractive alternative to the current GOP majority. Yet the minority Party seems equally anemic about their own desire for change.

The bottom line is that Democrats love the concept of "change" as a noun but are not so crazy about it as a verb. In other words, they want a change in the status quo to occur that will sweep them back into control of Congress this November. On the other hand, they do not wish to engage in change, either out of stodginess or fearing risk. Indeed, some Democratic strategists insist the Republicans are bound for self-destruction and the less Democratic politicians say the better.

This is at least partially based on current polls that consistently show Democrats with about a ten point lead over Republicans when people are asked who they want to see in control of Congress. But these types of polls are abstract and have a tendency not to pan out at the ballot box. Americans might really prefer control to shift to Democrats generally but that may not be sufficient to make them vote against their own Republican incumbent(s).

Democrats are trying to re-define or at least clarify their message and vision for voters. They have come up with a new slogan – "America Can Do Better" – and are issuing a series of policy statements. The first installment, "Honest Leadership," was presented back in January. The second, "Real Security," was published last week. Three more segments are planned, dealing with "Economic and Retirement Security," "Affordable Health Care for All," and "Educational Excellence."

The security paper was undoubtedly high profile within Democratic circles. In recent years, Democrats have watched two candidates with impressive personal military biographies – Max Cleland and John Kerry – go down to defeat when Party affiliation left them vulnerable to charges of being soft on security by GOP attackers.

It begins by promising to focus on the "real terrorist threat" by eliminating Osama bin Laden and ensuring a "responsible redeployment of U.S. forces" from Iraq in 2006. Democrats said they would double the number of Special Forces and add more spies, which they suggested would increase the chances of finding al-Qaida's elusive leader.

Otherwise, the document is a bit vague, with no specific details of how to capture the up-to-now highly elusive bin Laden. Likewise, they set no deadline for when all of the American troops now in Iraq should be withdrawn. They promise to destroy al-Qaida and other terrorist networks but there is no discussion of a broader threat or global war. They are likewise silent on whether the U.S. should play a role in spreading democracy throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. There is no mention about if/when the U.S. should employ preemptive action.

Columnist Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post bemoans the document does promise, "almost as an aside and without elaboration," to "lead international efforts to uphold and defend human rights" and to combat "the economic, social, and political conditions that allow extremism to thrive." Yet, Hiatt notes, "there is no discussion of values, of liberty or generosity, of free markets or foreign aid – of any purpose for American leadership larger than self-protection."

Overall, despite their focus on change and superior alternatives, the Democrats are offering many of the same proposals they have put forward in the recent past. They save their most convincing rhetoric to make the case that the Bush Administration's "inadequate planning and incompetent policies have failed to make Americas as safe as we should be."

That thought was echoed by Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who called yesterday's decision by Representative Tom DeLay of Texas not to run for re-election, "just the latest piece of evidence that the Republican Party is a Party in disarray, a Party out of ideas and out of energy."

Yet Tracey Schmitt, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman, sounded equally plausible and credible when she dismissed the Democratic national security policy statement as "more of the same from the Party that opposes this President's effort to keep our country safe. The bottom line is while this President campaigns against the terrorists, Democrats remain focused on campaigning against this President."

Positive messengers may be more effective than a positive message this election cycle but Democrats have been less than successful to date finding credible, experienced candidates for the coming mid-term elections – even in districts where Republican dominance is considered marginal. This will become even more critical in 2008 when Democrats must produce a popular, trustworthy candidate with national recognition.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has a theory why Democrats are experiencing such problems in this area, which he calls "Clinton blockage." He maintains that Senator Hillary Clinton of New York is such a clear front-runner with such an established reputation that her "big shadow . . . blocks out the sunlight in which other candidates might grow." Adding to this, regardless of any Presidential ambitions that Clinton might harbor, she clearly will make no decisions in this regard until after her Senate re-election campaign has concluded.

That leaves some Democratic strategists, such as James Jaffe, a freelance writer and a former Democratic staff member of the House Ways and Means, prone to advise other Democratic Presidential hopefuls to embrace boldness and not caution. A case in point is Illinois freshman Senator Barack Obama. Ever since Obama gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, many have marked him for future greatness. Yet amidst the excitement has been an undercurrent of conventional wisdom not to rush him into high office for which he is unprepared.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune last week, Jaffe make a convincing argument that this approach is not as foolproof as it intuitively seems. He points out that the American public has repeatedly embraced Presidential candidates in recent years – such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush – without much Washington experience. On the other hand, long-time Beltway insiders – such as Bill Bradley, Dick Gephardt, Bob Dole, Richard Lugar and Jack Kemp – have all gone down to ignominy.

This causes Jaffe to conclude, "Unlike good wines or cheeses, candidates don't become more appealing as they age." As further evidence, he points out that the last legislator elected to the White House was John F. Kennedy, who had a thirteen year Congressional career. The only other Twentieth Century President elected from Congress was Warren G. Harding, who had served only a single Senate term.

At the very least, this suggests that Obama should at least not be discouraged from challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008. His fresh face may be exactly what Democrats need in the here and now. More to the point, history suggests his current popularity and widespread respect is only likely to fade over time. Nowhere does this seem more evident than the fact that the longer Obama sits in Congress, the more he will be identified with groups there to which he belongs, such as the Black Caucus.

For all the talk about Republican fat-cat politicians tied to the apron strings of corporations, the Black Caucus seem quite out of touch with the interests of their own constituents and the views of African Americans in general as well as open to collusion with outside activists, as Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg recently pointed out.

Only about ten percent of its membership voted to ban partial-birth abortion in 2003, even though a majority of black Americans favored such a ban. They are on the opposite sides of several other issues from their constituents by similar margins, including school choice/vouchers, outright racial quotas, and gay marriage. Goldberg sees this as troublesome because the Black Caucus represents "black leadership in America" and they have done little to combat the number one problem within African American society, which he insists is not racism but "family breakdown."

Throw the racial aspect aside for a moment and the Black Caucus is still significant, in my opinion. They currently claim thirty-nine members of Congress, all Democrats. Since there are currently two hundred forty-five total Democrats in Congress, this means the Black Caucus represents sixteen percent of all currently serving Democratic legislators. And the perception they have created is a group that embraces traditional liberal populism wholesale; a groups that considers itself the "conscience of the Congress;" a group above scrutiny, let alone reproach.

Recent controversy by one its members, Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, underscores this perception. McKinney was apparently late for a recent important meeting and attempted to go around a security checkpoint, a perk allowed members of Congress. A security officer did not recognize her and asked McKinney three times to halt before putting his hand out to restrain her. At that point, McKinney physically hit the officer in her impatience and frustration.

McKinney was not wearing a special lapel pin given to House members to help police identify them and was sporting a new hairdo. In fairness, she insists she showed the security officer her Congressional ID.

Two days later, McKinney went before TV cameras and charged the officer with racism and "inappropriate touching," saying it was reasonable for her to expect that all Capitol staff ought to know her by site. Again, take away the race card and McKinney's position still "evinces the arrogance and ego that voters expect from elected officials" from either Party or so editorialized the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this morning.

I cannot disagree with the poster Thrasymachus, who responded to me on Friday by saying that so long as Republicans continue to fail at delivering the results the American public wants, the quality of their message becomes moot. Likewise, Democrats are likely to benefit from the general discontent despite the quality of their counter-message.

Still, I think Democrats are unlikely to see the full paradigm shift for which they so desperately hope unless they first realize that their (unofficial) national spokespeople are perceived as entrenched in positions as unpopular and ineffective as any belonging to Republicans and that fresh and bold new messengers – as well as a fresh and bold new message – will be required to carry out real change in Washington this November.

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