WASHINGTON — The Washington Beltway has an odd effect on people. Those who live too long inside are relatively clueless about life beyond. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the current Democratic leadership.
I know because I spent the past year of my life beyond the Beltway, running for a congressional seat as a Democrat in Maine's District 2 where the poor is a majority. While I did come in last, the year provided me with an earful.
The Democrats are in a bad way: clueless, out of touch, and about to lose the opportunity to take back the White House in 2004. If the Democrats had even one inspiring leader there'd be protests down Main Streets against Bush's collateral damage on everything from abortion and the budget to his push for war on Iraq.
But too much of party leadership has been inside the Beltway for too long and doesn't grasp how deep the rank-and-file's apathy is, how desperate we are for real leadership, and how angry most of us are with our party's lack of moral fortitude.
My campaign was intensively grass-roots. I walked 140 miles across the state. I spoke and listened at high schools, country stores, bean suppers, town docks, ski slopes, bars, dog-sled races ... you name it, I did it.
Everywhere, I found angry and disillusioned Democrats. Many have become Greens or Independents. Some vote but are otherwise inactive, calling themselves "non-party Democrats." Out of 136,000 registered Democrats in my district, only 39,000 voted this in a six-candidate primary billed as one of the hottest in the country. My most popular, cheer-inspiring line was, "The Democratic Party has lost its moral compass and is failing to provide any type of opposition we can rally around."
People repeatedly asked me, "Who do the Democrats have who can beat Bush?" No one, including me, had an answer. Everyone agreed Al Gore alone couldn't do it. But if not Mr. Gore, who?
If anyone in the leadership seriously thinks that the average Democrat in Eastport, Maine, is going to get excited about Joseph Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, or Tom Daschle they need to grab a map, book a cheap Southwest flight and a rental car, and get a beyond-the-Beltway reality check. Most voting Democrats I've met haven't even heard of these three.
So I started thinking who could lend charisma, intelligence, and normalcy to the party? Who could rock Bush's world? Who has the name recognition of Ronald Reagan? Who has stood out in a crisis? Then I remembered the Yankee stadium prayer service following 9/11 ... and Oprah. On that solemn day, her leadership shone.She was the Veep, and Rudy Giuliani (her co-emcee) was the President.
I started mentioning her name on the campaign trail and I learned what a powerful draw she is to the average American, transcending race and gender, and exuding a caring intelligence that inspires hope. (Example: her spiritual journal, which encourages people to write down something good that happens each day.) Average people can imagine sitting at the kitchen table with her.
Even after losing my election, I'm still talking about her as Gore's running mate. People outside the Beltway love the idea. Inside-the-Beltway types laugh and dismiss the notion which assures me, even more, that Oprah is the only answer.
Oprah, please, give Bill Clinton your show and come shake some reality into the party. Gore really needs you. Americans need you. Come help the party mean something to the average person again because politics as usual certainly isn't working.
Lori Handrahan is an assistant professor at American University's School of International Service.