A message -- or many -- from the Democrats

Does the party need a national message for 2006?

By Tim Grieve
March 7, 2006 10:18PM (UTC)
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The president's approval ratings are in the tank. The war he started on false pretenses is taking forever and going badly. The administration has turned off even its supporters with a deal to turn over operations at U.S. ports to a company controlled by a foreign government. The Republican Party is rocked by scandal. And its far-right flank seems determined to paint the party into a losing frame in the culture war.

A good time to be a running for office as a Democrat? You'd think.


By most accounts, Democrats are poised to pick up some seats in both the House and the Senate in November. But for the second day in a row now, a major national newspaper has chronicled the woe facing Democrats everywhere. On Monday, it was the New York Times. Today, it's the Washington Post. Both papers take the Democrats to task for failing to come up with a unified message for November. The Times' Adam Nagourney says that Democratic candidates around the country are "reading from a stack of different scripts these days." The Post's Shailagh Murray and Charles Babington say that the party's leaders in Congress have failed to "deliver a clear message" on which congressional and gubernatorial candidates can run.

But as Murray and Babington acknowledge, it's not clear whether the party should have a single national message. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid says that the electoral impact of the Republicans' 1994 Contract With America has become the subject of overheated "mythology," and that the Democrats shouldn't try to emulate it now. While a lot of Democrats disagree, there's a certain logic in what Reid is saying. When the majority party offers up a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities, why expect that all of your candidates will eat from a single dish? Is there really a problem if Nick Lampson runs on corruption as he guns for Tom DeLay's seat in Texas while Patricia Madrid runs on the war in neighboring New Mexico? These are local races with a big national overlay, not a presidential race where a consistent national message, repeated ad nauseam by every candidate, flack and pundit in the land, seems to be the key to success.

As the Post says, it's possible that the Democrats will decide that they're better off with an "all politics is local" approach. Even so, there's something awfully dispiriting about all the navel-gazing along the way. Congressional Democrats had planned to have their political agenda out for public view in November. The deadline slipped to January, then it slipped again, and now the agenda still isn't out. Reid tells the Post that party leaders have worked hard, with meetings and focus groups and God knows what else, to come up with a motto for the party -- did you know that it's "Together, America can do better"? -- but there's still disagreement over whether it's the right one. And then there's this: At the Democratic Governors Association meeting last month, the Post says, Iowa Gov. Tim Vilsack asked Reid and Nancy Pelosi if they could reduce their message to two or three core ideas that candidates could use. Reid said that congressional leaders had come up with six ideas, then Pelosi offered another, only some of which were the same as Reid's.


The Times says that with just eight months to go, Democrats are still in the experimenting stage. The focus for 2006 might include corruption or Medicare or incompetence or the complaint that a Republican Congress is acting as a rubber stamp for Bush. Maybe the focus will be on the war, or maybe just on the desire for change. It could be all of those things, or it could be different ones in different races.

"I'm happy that our party has a lot of different ideas about how to solve a problem," Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, tells the Times. So it's the smorgasbord approach, then? Maybe not. "By the time the election rolls around," Reid tells the Post, "people are going to know where Democrats stand."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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