Breaking the News, Gently

By now, most of you have read the New York Times’ acknowledgement that despite Bush’s flubbed response to Katrina, the continued slow progress (or stalemate if you prefer) in Iraq, the Abramoff scandal, and the Administration’s aimless drift in domestic policy, the Democrats are not exactly on the march toward victory in 2006.

The Times is usually very protective of the Democratic Party — to the party’s detriment, I’ve long believed. Even this article has a whiff of co-dependency about it. They want to break the news as gently as possible.

Democrats said they had not yet figured out how to counter the White House’s long assault on their national security credentials. And they said their opportunities to break through to voters with a coherent message on domestic and foreign policy — should they settle on one — were restricted by the lack of an established, nationally known leader to carry their message this fall.

Comment: The White House’s assault on the party’s national security credentials is nothing compared to what the Democrats are doing to themselves on this issue.

The NSA eavesdropping on conversations with Al Queda simply cannot be equated with J. Edgar Hoover’s bugging of Martin Luther King, Jr., or with Watergate-era abuses. Continuing to try to draw that comparison is inane on the merits, and disasterous politically.

As a result, some Democrats said, their party could lose its chance to do to Republicans this year what the Republicans did to them in 1994: make the midterm election, normally dominated by regional and local concerns, a national referendum on the party in power.

The Republicans in 1994 had more than just dissatisfaction with Clinton to draw on. For better or for worse, they had ideas, and they made sure everyone knew what they were.

The spotlight on the Democrats over the past few months has caught the party at its most unattractive. Not only are the ideas hard to discern, but the leading spokespersons are — to be honest — old, tired, out of touch, almost ridiculous.  Usually, those words describe the party in power.

“I think that two-thirds of the American people think the country is going in the wrong direction,” ” said Senator Barack Obama, the first-term Illinois Democrat who is widely viewed as one of the party’s promising stars. “They’re not sure yet whether Democrats can move it in the right direction.”

I like Obama, and agree with the description “promising.” But he’s not riding ideas, he’s riding his biography. He will make a lot of “most-admired” lists, but he has yet to articulate a reason why he should be considered a leader.

Mr. Obama said the Democratic Party had not seized the moment, adding: “We have been in a reactive posture for too long. I think we have been very good at saying no, but not good enough at saying yes.”

“Yes” — but to what?

The Democrats are in a dilemma, not entirely one of their own making. Much as they will resent this comparison, they are like the Republicans of the early 1940s, split on the most important issue facing the country.

They have two choices. Join Bush & Co. in support of the campaign to spread democracy as a key part of the strategy to make the world safer — and risk being seen as the “me-too” party. Or, reject Bush’s strategy and call for a more isolationist, fortress-America stance, which is not a majority position.

In 2004, John Kerry tried to straddle this divide, and wasn’t persuasive, losing despite Bush’s unpopularity. My hope is that by 2008, Democrats will be able to declare the direction of our foreign policy as a settled matter — as the Republicans did after Pearl Harbor — and make the campaign about domestic issues, where we are more united and the Republicans are more divided.

To do that, however, they’ll need come up with new domestic initiatives. Throughout the whole New York Times story, I didn’t see one solid policy idea, not one thing that would say, “elect me and I’ll….” Right now, the only way the Democratic Party can finish that sentence honestly is, “oppose Bush.” It’s not enough, and during wartime, it’s a negative.

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