Suddenly, Democrats see a possibility in 2006 they have long dreamed of: a sweeping midterm election framed around what they describe as the simple choice of change with the Democrats or more of an unpopular status quo with the Republican majority.
That sense of political opportunity has Democratic operatives scrambling to recruit more candidates in Congressional districts that look newly favorable for Democratic gains, to overcome internal divisions and produce an agenda they can carry into 2006, and to raise the money to compete across a broader field. In short, the Democrats are trying to be ready if, in fact, an anti-incumbent, 1994-style political wave hits.
"Trying to be ready"??? Shouldn't they be trying to create that wave rather than just crossing their fingers and hoping the Republicans will bury themselves? Do they really want to brand themselves as "the party that stood by and twiddled their thumbs while the Republicans imploded and ran the country into the ground"?*
Really, running as the party of "change" vs. "status quo" is just another way of identifying yourself simply as "not-Republican." Granted, the Republicans are looking so bad right now that it's very possible that could be enough, but do we really want to gamble the country on it?
There are some signs that the Democrats understand this on some level, but they're not filling me with confidence that they can pull it off:
But for Democrats to step into the void, many strategists and elected officials say, they must offer more than a blistering critique of the Republicans in power, the regular attacks on what Democrats now describe as a "culture of cronyism and corruption."
(I like that - they need to keep working that, and reiterate and reinforce it every time the Republicans do anything dodgy - club the Republicans over the head with it the same way they club Democrats over the head with their supposed unpatriotic weakness and decadent elitism.)
What they need, many Democrats acknowledge, is their own version of the "Contract With America," the Republican agenda (tax cuts, a balanced budget, a stronger military and an array of internal reforms) that the party campaigned on in the 1994 landslide election, when it won control of the House and the Senate.
"I think Democrats understand we have a great opportunity," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We've gotten much better at blocking some of the bad things the Republicans would do, but we know you can't be a party of long-term majorities unless you put forward the things you would do."
(Okay, so far, so good. Chuck, I'm totally feeling you - but your definition of "much better" might be a little... loose.)
Democratic leaders from the House, the Senate, the national party and representatives of mayors and governors have met periodically to try to produce their own campaign agenda for 2006, which they hope to unveil early next year, strategists and senators said.
That agenda will deal with energy independence, broader access to health care and college education, government reform, economic security and - the most divisive issue for the Democrats - Iraq and national security, Democratic strategists say.
Those are all honorable topics, but that last bullet is the only one that's going to have any serious resonance with voters. If their message on the Iraqi invasion is anything other than, "It was a mistake; we were conned," they're going to lose. On national security, they must focus on all the gaping holes in security the Republicans have allowed (ports, chemical plants, nuclear reactors, securing Russian nukes and nuke fixin's, DHS's general rot and ineptitude, etc.), and how the Democrats will close them.
One other area where I fear the Democrats are not even seeing the boat is the nature of their candidates: There are disturbing signs that they favor stolid, "safe" candidates over passionate fire-breathers. Hungry Senatorial candidates like Paul Hackett in Ohio and Chuck Pennacchio in Pennsylvania are being pushed aside by Schumer's DSCC in favor of Sherrod Brown (who I admit to not knowing much about) and Bob Casey Jr., who has great name recognition but is a reluctant and uninspiring DLC stiff. This is a huge mistake - the Democrats must field candidates who inspire people, and who are not afraid to throw or take a punch. They have proved time and again that the cautious milquetoasts that campaign "strategists" like Bob Shrum glom onto or create always fail. In fact, they should take this one step farther and either permanently exile Shrum and his ineffectu-ilk from Democratic electoral politics, or else retain them as "anti-advisors" and simply do the exact opposite of whatever they recommend.
*I'm cashing in my Mixed-Metaphors Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card to erase this entire paragraph from my permanent record.