Get It Together, Democrats

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

October 17, 2005

A word of caution: Democrats should think twice before getting all giddy about the problems caving in on the Republicans and the prospects of regaining control of Congress in next year's elections.

For one thing, the Democrats' own house is hardly in order. While recent polls have shown growing disenchantment with President Bush and the G.O.P., there's no evidence that voters have suddenly become thrilled with the Democrats.

A survey taken by the Pew Research Center showed an abysmal 32 percent approval rating for Democratic leaders in Congress.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Congressional redistricting (anti-democratic in every sense of the word) has made it more difficult to oust incumbents. It would take a landslide of shocking proportions for the Democrats to win control of both houses of Congress next fall.

This is not to minimize the troubles facing the G.O.P. The party is in free fall. The war in Iraq has been a disaster and despite the vote on the constitution over the weekend there is no end in sight. The cronyism and incompetence of the Bush administration ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job") have become a national joke, a given.

Tom DeLay has been indicted. Bill Frist and his lawyers are answering subpoenas and preparing a defense for possible insider-trading charges. The White House is in a state of highest anxiety over the very real possibility that criminal charges will be brought against one or more of the most important people in the Bush administration. And conservatives have formed a circular firing squad over the Harriet Miers flap.

It's no wonder the Democrats are gleeful.

They should get over it, and get on with the very difficult business of convincing the public that Democrats would do a better job of governing a country that is already in deep trouble, and sinking deeper by the day.

It's not enough to tell voters how terrible the Republicans are. (Leave that to the left-leaning columnists.) What Democrats have to do is get over their timidity, look deep into their own souls, discover what they truly believe and then tell it like it is.

Give us something to latch onto. Where do we go from here?

A friend reminded me recently of the old political adage that all campaigns are a battle between hope and fear. Ever since Sept. 11 President Bush and the G.O.P. have been pushing the nation's fear buttons for all they're worth. The public is frightened, all right - about terror, about the consequences of the war in Iraq, about economic insecurity here at home, about the future of the United States. But there is no longer much confidence that President Bush and the Republicans are competent to deal with these tough issues.

What the Democrats have to do is get off their schadenfreude cloud and start the hard work of crafting a message of hope that they can deliver convincingly to the electorate - not just in the Congressional elections next year, but in local elections all over the country and the presidential election of 2008.

That is not happening at the moment. While Americans are turning increasingly against the war in Iraq, for example, the support for the war among major Democratic leaders seems nearly as staunch and as mindless as among Republicans. On that and other issues, Democrats are still agonizing over whether to say what they truly believe or try to present themselves as a somewhat lighter version of the G.O.P.

I wonder what Harry Truman would think about today's Democratic Party?

Democrats need to put together a serious proposal for withdrawal of American forces from Iraq over a reasonable (which means reasonably short) period of time, and couple that with a broader national security plan that focuses on Al Qaeda-type terrorism and domestic security.

Democrats need to tell the country the truth about taxes, about the benefits of investing in the nation's physical infrastructure, about the essential need to bolster public education from kindergarten through college, and about the shared sacrifices that will be necessary if anything approaching energy independence is to be achieved.

They need to be optimistic and hopeful as they deliver their message to the country, explaining that all of these things are doable, that they will strengthen the U.S. in the short term and create a better future for the next generation and the one after that.

Competence is essential, but it's not enough. The great voices of history have always been the voices of optimism and hope.