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As Republicans stumble, Democrats bumble
San Francisco Chronicle


October 18, 2005
Tuesday AM

WASHINGTON - Listen to Democrats and it is easy to say what they are not.

They are not the party that led America to war in Iraq. They are not the party trying to privatize Social Security, cut taxes to the rich or add to the deficit. They are not the party responsible for the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina, whose top leaders in the House and Senate are under investigation, whose White House is being scrutinized by a special prosecutor, or whose members are up in arms over their president's latest Supreme Court selection.

Democrats, some barely able to contain their glee, seem to have embraced the strategy of Napoleon Bonaparte, who famously advised: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."

It is far more difficult to say what Democrats are for.

Some call for a quick reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq; others call for an increase. Most Democrats push for deficit reduction; others push for more social spending; and many call for both. When John Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court came before the Senate, half the Democrats voted in favor and half the Democrats voted against.

Washington's conventional wisdom places Democrats in a strong position to gain seats during next year's congressional election, if for no other reason than the Republican Party's political misfortunes, which show no signs of abating. White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove's full morning of testimony before a Washington grand jury on Friday served as another reminder of potential problems ahead.

But for Democrats to capitalize on the GOP's woes and win the 15 House seats or six Senate seats needed to claim a majority in either legislative body, most agree they need to put forward an appealing alternative of their own.

Republicans swept away half a century of Democratic domination of Congress in 1994 in large part by playing up their opponents' failings. But they also presented a "Contract with America," which provided sound-bite-sized themes - from lowering taxes to diminishing the role of government - to rally their supporters, and turn 435 House and 33 Senate elections into a national referendum on the status quo.

Democrats are searching for their own unifying themes, with strategists voicing concern that roughly one year before the election, many people have little idea what the party stands for.

Part of the problem stems from Democratic disagreements on specific issues, such as Iraq, as well as broader strategic decisions such as whether to concentrate on invigorating the base or reaching out to moderate swing voters. It is accentuated by the lack of a marquee leader who can stir members coast to coast, and by the party's minority status, which deprives it of a platform to promote its agenda.

After consecutive losses in presidential elections and now in their second decade as a minority on Capitol Hill, Democrats are struggling for a well-recognized identity.

"Democrats have found it difficult to articulate a compelling message or an alternative agenda," wrote former Clinton White House aides Elaine Kamarck, now on the faculty at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and William Galston, now a University of Maryland professor, in a recently released 68-page report titled "The Politics of Polarization."

"Whatever voters may think of the Republican mantra - strong defense, lower taxes, traditional values - at least they know where Republicans stand. They have no such conviction about the Democrats," concludes the report.

Or, put more bluntly by comedian Jay Leno as he marked the 33rd anniversary of the break-in at the Democratic Party's headquarters at the Watergate office complex: "You see, back in those days the Democrats actually had ideas worth stealing."

Republicans have fostered that perception by attacking Democrats for failing to specify their own plans on thorny matters like Iraq and Social Security. A typical GOP news release, distributed to reporters last week, labeled Democrats "The party of no plan, the party of no agenda."

Seeking to change that perception, Democrats have embarked on a mission to make their unifying principles more recognizable.

Top Democrats on Capitol Hill, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, have been meeting with mayors and governors to develop a cohesive strategy for the 2006 campaign, which would outline a set of core principles and broad policy goals. Pelosi stands to become House speaker, and Reid would be Senate majority leader, if Democrats could win back their majority in either house.

Democrats planned to release the initiatives next year, when voters become more focused on the election. The GOP's Contract with America, for example, was released in the final six weeks of the 1994 campaign. But the GOP's difficulties and plummeting poll numbers have prompted Democratic leaders to consider releasing their plan before Thanksgiving.

"The Republicans have opened the door so wide, we've moved up our timetable," said Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider.

A draft of Pelosi's proposals includes eight platforms, including "Real Security for America," "Quality and Affordable Health Care for all Americans," and an "End to the Culture of Cronyism, Incompetence and Corruption in Washington."

The specific initiatives include a call for benchmarks for determining when U.S. troops can leave Iraq, permitting re-importation of prescription drugs, raising the minimum wage, and making health insurance and college educations available to those who cannot now afford them.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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