New Year's resolutions for the red and the blue

The holidays don't hit political parties the way they hit people. Political parties can't eat too much at their aunt's house. They can't get cornered by uncles who explain, in great detail, the most effective methods of snow removal.

But they are human, in a way. Or at least they are made up of and directed by humans - and pollsters, who most people maintain actually are human. That touch of humanity gives them some of the same strengths as you and me.

They can sit back, sated, and look back on a good year's work as they ponder what they hope are wondrous times ahead (see the Republican Party).

Or they can hold out hopes like those in the annual letters from families trying to put the best spin on a tough year (see the Democrats). "Uncle J.F. Kerry is in good spirits after an exciting year. He actually won more votes than any Democratic nominee in history!"

And, at year's end, they can resolve to make some changes in the months ahead. Both parties have a few things they should consider before the clock strikes midnight.

For the Democrats ... well, where do you begin? The party infighting is on again as the leaders try to decide whether they were too obvious about their beliefs or not obvious enough. The fight has even gone to the abortion issue, where the Democrats reportedly are reconsidering their position. Not actually changing it, mind you, but in traditional Democratic fashion they are trying to figure how to appear more open to other positions while not actually accepting them.

This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. It's worked for the GOP's leadership for years as they dutifully march a rainbow of people and positions across their convention stage and then shut divergent views out of platform meetings and, more important, make it virtually impossible for anyone holding those views to capture the nomination.

But the answers to the Democrats' problems don't lie in the quadrennial navel-gazing marathon; they lie in something far simpler. In the days immediately following the election a downright despondent James Carville told a room full of journalists that the Democrats' real problem was that they lacked a narrative, a way to explain what their party is about, a signature character on which to hang the party's image. And as much as Mr. Carville can at times be a rambling, trash-talking party cheerleader, he's right about this one.

In the coming year, the Democrats have to resolve to become something more than a collection of ideas and positions. They need the image of the party to be something other than foul-mouthed Hollywood personalities and wavering candidates. They need to stand not for something, but for someone - perhaps workers who are struggling to get by. They need a story. They need to explain who and what they are fighting for and concern themselves less with positions.

This president was reelected even though polls show supporters don't agree with many of his positions. And one of the reasons people like him, in a complicated world full of artificial "realities," is that he seems solid and they know where he stands. The Democrats need some of that, and they've got to go about making the changes Jan. 1, or sooner.

Judging from the GOP's performance over the past year, if any resolutions are needed they seem to be simple ones. How could one improve on it other than by winning a few more Senate seats?

But the Republican resolutions are actually a bit more complicated, because it's generally harder to lead a group of winners than losers. Success does have a thousand fathers after all. And all of them have something to say.

The question for the GOP is, how easily will they fall in line behind the White House in 2005? The administration would prefer the folks on the Hill to simply shut up and push the agenda through, but not everyone agrees with that agenda - even those from the president's side of the aisle. In the Senate, there are moderates who simply don't think all of the president's ideas are good ones. And the House, being the House, is full of men and women with their own agendas. Big angry disputes help no one.

So the resolutions for the GOP for all those involved have to be: Stay firm in your beliefs and fight for them, but understand that you need to pick your battles carefully; make peace offerings to hold things together - if, for instance, your Defense secretary is angering your own people; and keep family fights within the family as much as possible.

And while you're at it, say a few prayers for Iraq. Everyone knows who the father of that situation is and if it falls apart further, the next year won't be very merry for anyone, but particularly not for those aligned with the White House.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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