Republican woes won't rescue Democrats from their confusion

OK, so now what?

If after last year's election you asked a Democrat how they would like to see the next 12 months unfold for the Bush administration, it would have looked a lot like the way things actually went. Oh, they wouldn't have wished for a national disaster like hurricane Katrina or hoped for more deaths in Iraq, but Howard Dean probably had a few dreams of the wheels coming off this administration in the way that they have.

And up until now the Democratic Party has done the cautious and politically smart thing. When your adversary is doing a good job of tripping himself, the last thing you want to do is get in the way. Make no mistake, the fumbling and fighting going on in the GOP isn't going to be over anytime soon. If the president's approval numbers stay down (and there aren't a lot of good signs on the horizon), Republicans are going to be having debates about their party's future through 2008.

But eventually, the Democrats have to be the party of something more than "we're not them." They have to decide what it is they believe. And the questions are much deeper than whether they voted for or against invading Iraq or No Child Left Behind.

The questions go to the core of the party. What does it mean to be a Democrat?

Does it mean you're for some government intervention on social issues, just not as much as you used to be for, but still more than other guys? Does it mean you're for tax cuts, or for balanced budgets or, the always popular, both at the same time? What does being a Democrat mean in terms of education and healthcare and the Patriot Act?

These issues are suddenly of some importance as the 2006 midterms approach. Some inside and outside the party have even suggested Democrats in the House and Senate follow the example of Newt Gingrich and the Republicans of 1994 and draft a new kind of "Contract with America" - a bulleted list of ideas and initiatives for the public. Such a document would nationalize the elections, the thinking goes, and put the party in place to stand as a unified body against a weak president.

There are, however, at least two good reasons for the party not to take a page from the book of Newt.

First, beyond speaking in platitudes ("we're for free ice cream and balanced budgets") it's hard to imagine what said document would exactly contain. The various factions sitting along the left/right continuum of the party simply haven't fought it out yet on some of those questions above.

Second, it's not clear how a bland document of happy-talk would change the dynamic of this election. The truth is that the Congress and particularly the House in 1994 were very different animals from the way they are today. Yes, the Republicans took back control for the first time in 60 years, but a number of the seats they took were already swinging toward the GOP - many in those districts had voted for the Republican in the presidential elections but still returned their Democratic representatives to Congress.

The electorate is more stable now in the days of red and blue America, thanks in part to congressional redistricting that has limited the number of truly contested and contestable seats. In other words there are some true "purple" districts out there, but not many. Political handicappers figure the number to be somewhere around 30 to 40 - that's less than 10 percent of all the House seats, and remember some of those are held by Democrats currently.

If the electorate is so angry with President Bush that voters want to punish the congressional members of his party, they will do so with or without a "Contract."

None of which, of course, answers the question about what the Democrats should do now.

The truth is there is no easy answer. The party has to do what any party does in the situation it is in. It's various factions have to begin proposing ideas (something they need to begin doing) and let those policies and plans battle it out for control. Unified fronts arise from presidential campaigns, not off-year elections.

For the Democrats to get out of their confused state in the long run, they need to be sure their next unified front has something more to offer than it has in the past - a list of proposals and positions meant to pacify constituent groups with little in the way of an organizing theme. Somewhere in all the policies put forward there has to be a cohesive idea of the party's identity.

That's not easy, of course, but it's also not the kind of thing a party discovers through the crafting of a campaign document.

Dante Chinni writes a twice monthly political column for the Monitor.

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