Seeking a rallying cry, louder voices

Democrats want to do better at conveying the party's message. Which is what exactly?

By Robin Abcarian

Los Angeles Times

February 17, 2005

Yes, the Democrats have chosen a new leader. Yes, they are officially all about looking ahead, not dwelling on defeat. And yes, they have vowed to take back the White House in 2008. But it's still pretty much of a downer to be a Democrat these days. Just ask Anna Eshoo, who was first elected to the House of Representatives from Atherton, Calif., in 1992.

Remember 1992?

"We had the triple crown," Eshoo sighed, "all three branches. There was that wonderful, happy sense of all that we would get done, and we had the tools to do it."

And then along came Newt Gingrich in 1994, with his "Contract With America," and … oh, but who really needs another history lesson right now?

The point is Republicans have consolidated power in the White House, Congress, state legislatures and governors' mansions across the land, and with Bush senior advisor Karl Rove at the controls, are working toward what they have taken to calling a "permanent Republican majority." With the second inauguration of President Bush a fait accompli and gleeful Republicans rubbing liberal noses in his victory, Democrats are struggling mightily to figure out what the party stands for. Part of the job is simply to remain optimistic when the picture is so bleak.

"I do think we need to make lemonade out of lemons," said Democratic strategist Ron Klain, who fled Washington for Mexico during Bush's inauguration. "The good news is his presidency is half over."

Democrats who are not paralyzed by depression are starting to feel pugnacious, particularly after Saturday's election of Howard Dean (the standard-bearer of pugnacious) as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Outgoing DNC chair Terry McAuliffe handed the gavel to Dean, completing the "peaceful transfer of no power" as one TV wag put it.

Predictably, the ascension of Dean, the former Vermont governor, has been mocked by conservatives (some have rubbed their hands in glee, certain that with the volatile Dean leading the party, Democrats are doomed). Rush Limbaugh sniped that Dean was "unifying the party based on the proposition of mainstreaming the kook fringe," echoing last year's memorable anti-Dean commercial in which his supporters were described as a "tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show."

Although right-wing talkers may rejoice, plenty of dispirited Democrats are feeling optimistic about the likely tug to the left that Dean will exert on the party. "The thing about Dean is he at least understands what the Democrats' problem is, which would be hard to say about the previous bunch," said Thomas Frank, registered Democrat and author of the bestselling book "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." "They've never understood why they keep losing to the right. They think the answer is to triangulate and compromise. They have this mathematical calculus about where the center is. And Dean seems to understand the folly of that."

Democratic strategist and former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi (who has been deemed a "political prodigy" once a decade since 1980), did not support Dean for DNC chairman, but acknowledged that Democrats have only two options at this point: "You can pull the covers up over your head and be real depressed, or you can get out there and fight. My view is fight."

That stance is echoed by DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera, who joked last month that he was going to spend Jan. 20 running his nails down a chalkboard, which would be "more pleasurable" than listening to the president's inaugural speech.

"The one thing Democrats hate more than getting punched is not punching back," he said. "I think that's the new mood. In the past, the circular firing squad quickly formed, but now I do think the Democrats are much more focused on stopping a Bush agenda than starting an internal debate."

At the top of the Democrats' list is beating back Bush's plan to revamp Social Security, an issue that the Democrats hope will do for them what "Hillarycare" — the failed Clinton plan for universal health insurance — did for Republicans back in 1994.

"Let me put it this way," said Frank. "I think Democrats can be fairly certain that if Bush pushes ahead with Social Security privatization that the world will come their way."

Regardless of how the Social Security battle shapes up, there is still the pervasive sense out there that Democrats know what they are against, but have a hard time articulating in compact and digestible prose what they are for.

"I think because the Democratic Party is the party of government, and because government is about the art of the possible, and compromise, it's more difficult for them to articulate things like, 'Yeah, cut taxes,' " said Blair Levin, a telecommunications analyst who was a chief of staff at the FCC during the Clinton administration.

"What Democrats have been doing in the last few years is defending programs that are the residue of Democratic successes, Social Security being the most obvious … and Medicare and Head Start, and a thousand different programs. But defending those against cuts is not an aspirational message."

In the last few months, this notion began to nag at Michael Tomasky, executive editor of the American Prospect, a journal of liberal political thought. After the November election, he found himself on a number of Washington panels where the question inevitably arose: "We know what conservatives are for, but what are liberals for?"

Democrats, said Tomasky, "have to figure out a message that they can say to the American people with force and without apology." The leadership in Congress is busy reacting to what the president is doing, he said, and the new DNC chairman will have his hands full trying to catch up with the GOP's organizational superiority. And so, as Tomasky put it, "since nobody in this town seems to know," he invited readers to create an "elevator pitch" for liberalism.

"You're in an elevator with a potential moneybags," he wrote, "and you have, say, seven floors to tell him why he should write you a check. Well, we all know the basic outline of conservatism's elevator pitch: 'We believe in freedom and liberty, and we're for low taxes, less government, traditional values and a strong national defense.' But what is liberalism's?"

The contest, which asked for 30 words or less, drew responses from nearly 700 readers. A few examples:

•  Liberalism is the revolutionary idea that freedom, justice, security and peace are inextricable, at home and abroad.

•  We believe that government can and should keep the playing fields level, assist those harmed by fate, and encourage freedom, democracy, and the rule of law around the world."

•  We believe in freedom and liberty, and we're for low taxes, less government, traditional values and a strong national defense. Only we mean it.

The winner, to be announced this week, will receive a free subscription to the American Prospect, a night on the town with the magazine staff, and former Labor secretary Robert Reich's distinctive voice on his or her home answering machine.

In the long run, many Democratic strategists say privately, nothing they do now may help tip the balance of power toward them in the 2006 midterm elections. There is little hope of winning back the House or Senate.

And it's anyone's guess at this point what will happen in 2008.

For certain Democrats, the loss of 2004 is irrevocable.

"On one level, you take a longer view, but on a personal level, the cycle may not self-correct," said Levin, 50, who was rumored to be on the short list for FCC chairman under Kerry. "I have a number of friends who were looking forward to positions in a Kerry administration. And as time goes on, what you can do in government when you're 50 is very different from what you can do at 54 or 58 or 62."

Sitting in the plush restaurant of Washington's Mayflower Hotel, Levin smiled. "There's this wonderful Talmudic story about King Solomon, who sent advisors off to find something that would make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. And it turns out to be a ring, which is inscribed, 'This too shall pass.'

"I can remember when we were powerful, thinking 'This too shall pass.' And now my friends are not, and they are thinking, 'This, too, shall pass.' "