Democrats search for a party path

The party has failed to convert a recent string of Republican stumbles to its own gain.

Life in the political wilderness can be tough. Some Republicans here still know what that's like - though at this point, 10-plus years after Newt Gingrich & Co. swept the Democrats out of power on Capitol Hill, a majority of House GOP members have no firsthand experience of being in the minority.

Democrats, in fact, are counting on those dwindling numbers to help them as they look for that right combination of message, candidates, infrastructure, and opposition stumbles - with a dash of opposition hubris - to win back their mojo in 2006, if not 2008. So far, the party in power has obliged on that last score: House GOP leader Tom DeLay is under siege over ethics. President Bush faces an uphill climb with his No. 1 domestic priority, remaking Social Security. A majority of Americans objected to Congress and Bush turning the Terri Schiavo tragedy into a federal case.

But Democrats aren't gaining from the other side's losses. Polls show the GOP congressional leadership is less popular than the president - but the Democratic leadership fares still worse. And even among rank-and-file Democrats, only 56 percent approve of their own congressional leadership, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Republicans, the analogous number is 76 percent.

Bottom line: It's hard to project power when you're out of power. Among Democrats, "there's a feeling that somehow our leaders are not fighting back hard enough, though I don't think that's true," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.

Mr. Marshall adds that he's never seen the party so determined in its opposition to the right. "But even though we may be winning policy arguments on Social Security and things like the Schiavo case, there's no way to take those gains to the bank immediately, in the sense of winning elections," he says.

Polls also show the public doesn't get a clear message from the Democrats - beyond "just say no" to Republicans. Around town, pollsters and Democratic policy groups are hunkering down and formulating ideas they hope will propel their party back into power. One new group, called Third Way, is a stepchild of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group that was Bill Clinton's ideological home base. Third Way is working with centrist Democratic senators to draft ideas, and ultimately legislation, on national security, the economy, and cultural issues. Another group, the Center for American Progress, launched in 2003 by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, calls itself nonpartisan, but has emerged as a premier purveyor of progressive Democratic analysis - some say spin.

A couple of other Clinton alumni - pollster Stanley Greenberg and campaign guru James Carville - have also been on a quest, via their group Democracy Corps, for what they call a dominant "narrative" that Democrats can take from battlefield to battlefield, from Social Security to the budget to tax reform. Of the six Democratic vision statements they tested in a February survey, one scored highest for its potential to sway likely voters to their party's side: "The Democrats say America is only strong when we are strong at home, as well as in the world. We must invest in our own people to expand opportunity and build our own economy. Promoting American jobs, industry and technology is our starting point and mission in building a strong America."

Other analysts believe that just saying "no" to the GOP is precisely the way to go for now, at least in the run-up to the 2006 midterm elections. Just as out-of-power Republicans in 1994 succeeded in wounding the Democrats by rejecting Clinton's healthcare plan, and not putting forth an alternative, the Democrats are following the same game plan with Social Security.

"It really is important for Democrats over this longer period, certainly for the presidential campaign of 2008, to know what they're about in a way that's easily communicated," says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. But "the object now, from [Democrats'] perspective, is to keep the Republicans from doing more harm."

Indeed, Democrats complain that while they have plenty of ideas and proposals, when you're out of power, the press doesn't care.

"You are inevitably going to focus on the official agenda," said Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts at a recent Monitor breakfast, "and therefore it makes sense for us to define what we are doing in terms of our opposition to their official agenda."

Many analysts are looking back to the Republicans' 1994 electoral sweep that gave them control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Some parallels to today are there: an unpopular presidential initiative, ethics problems of a key leader. But the Democrats face a steeper climb - in part, because congressional redistricting has made the vast majority of seats safe for their incumbent parties.

And it would be a mistake, says Mr. Mann, to assume that a Democratic version of the GOP's 1994 "Contract With America" - a 10-point plan that gave candidates and party activists a campaign blueprint - is essential in 2006. The contract wasn't released until six weeks before the 1994 midterms, and polls show most of the public wasn't aware of it. Mann calls it "a minor ingredient" in the Gingrich revolution. Far more important was a sense that a form of dry rot had set in at the core of the Democratic leadership, allowing the Republicans to nationalize the race.

For now, then, while the Republicans reap the benefits and risks of total control, some Democrats are focusing on infrastructure. In a New York Times commentary last month, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey called on his Democratic brethren to build a Republican-style "pyramid" of power - a base of donors and foundations, a second layer of think tanks, a third layer of political strategists, a fourth level of partisan media, and, if all goes according to plan, a Democratic president at the top.

Last weekend, in Scottsdale, Ariz., Democratic strategist Rob Stein was to hold a confab of party fundraisers to begin such an enterprise. Newly minted Democratic chair Howard Dean is also working on structure, building up state Democratic parties. But he has also grabbed headlines of late, suggesting, for example, that Democrats should "use Terri Schiavo" to attack Republicans. Whether Dr. Dean's outspokenness takes away from his mundane but crucial goal of party-building remains to be seen.

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