A recent poll that showed satisfaction with President Bush and, more important, the Republican Party at or near all-time lows also gave Democrats bad marks for failing to offer the country a clear alternative. Former House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill said that all politics is local; and in contrast to European countries, that's what usually decides American congressional elections. An exception is the 1994 election when Republicans captured the House based on Newt Gingrich's Contract with America.
It would be a pity if the Democrats in 2006 missed what looks like a historic opportunity to capture one or both houses of Congress. Here, in no particular order of importance, are 10 talking points to help them explain how they would do a better job than Republicans in running the country.
1. It should be a war on terror, not a war for democracy. The war on terror justified the invasion of Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden, the principal perpetrator of terrorism, was in hiding. Neither terror nor democracy justified the invasion of Iraq.
2. We have not yet invaded Iran, which President Bush once linked to Iraq and North Korea in an "axis of evil." He has also called Iran a theater for the "struggle between political extremism and civilized values" where "tired, discredited autocrats are trying to hold back the democratic will of a rising generation." When the Bush administration had the chance, it did nothing to help that generation. Instead, it continued its support of the autocrats, especially in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
3. Republicans charge that Democrats are no more than a collection of interest groups - e.g., labor, civil rights, abortion rights, etc. - each consumed with its own agenda instead of the nation's. Democrats should answer: It ill behooves Republicans to criticize anybody on this score. It is Republicans who have outspent the country's budgetary resources by trillions (as in $1,000,000,000,000) promoting their own agenda.
4. Democrats need to emphasize their support for constructive action on the country's real problems. The first is education. It's good not to leave any child behind, but it's better to help all children get ahead. It is today's children who will determine whether the United States is a world leader in 2030. This will not take as much money as the Republicans are spending in Iraq, but it will take a lot: for smaller classes, better paid teachers, better libraries, better laboratories.
Healthcare for all remains an unsolved problem. The distribution of tax burdens is a scandal: Stop cutting taxes to benefit the $1,000,000+ income brackets. Globalization is going to happen; better to find ways to turn it to our advantage than to fight it and lose. It's in the US interest that China get rich; better to have a rich friend than a poor and embittered enemy.
5. Support Bush when he's right. It will give you more credibility in opposing him when he's wrong. Example: trade.
6. Mr. Republican (Sen. Robert Taft [R] of Ohio) once said of the war in Korea: "It's the duty of the opposition to oppose." The Democrats are lucky to be as well off as they are, given their failure to oppose the war in Iraq or to capitalize on exposure of the phony reasons to start it, e.g., the mythical weapons of mass destruction. Nor was there significant opposition to the misnamed USA Patriot Act.
7. You cannot promote democracy and human rights abroad if you don't practice them at home.
8. Wiretaps without a warrant. One official has said he complained privately to members of Congress about this, but that "people just looked the other way because they didn't want to know what was going on." This lack of curiosity has characterized the intelligence oversight committees almost since their creation, and the committees, the intelligence community, and the country have suffered from it.
9. President Bush has used the war as an excuse for an unpardonable expansion of presidential powers. Willing White House and Justice Department lawyers have found "inherent" but unwritten powers of the president in the Constitution. If the framers of the Constitution had wanted the president to have inherent powers, they would have said so.
10. President Reagan, a Republican, wanted to make America "a shining city on a hill," the vision of a colonial governor of Massachusetts, even before there was a United States. Setting an example for the world will get you more friends and more influence than the example of the neighborhood bully as set by our current Republican president.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.