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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Democrats Seek a Stronger Focus, and Money
By ADAM CLYMER
May 25, 2003
SANTA FE, N.M. Democrats from the West came here in mid-May to share political hopes and fears and to reassure one another that despite President Bush's popularity, their party has a future.
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, one of the party's handful of big winners last fall, said Democrats had to "develop a strong economic message" and "a strong national security message." Mr. Richardson said the security message had to make it clear that "if we need to use force, we do it."
But other Democrats at the meeting of the Western caucus of the Democratic National Committee either wanted to focus on what they called the Bush administration's misuse of force, or to attack the president personally as "the village idiot from Texas," as Julia Hicks, vice chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party, put it.
Like their national counterparts, Western Democrats lack unity, a coherent message and enough money to compete with Republicans. Rachel Virgil-Giron, the New Mexico secretary of state, said, "We don't have the money."
Karen Marchioro, leader of the caucus, said, "God knows we need help." Such laments are common in the party that once dominated American politics but does so no longer.
Nationally, more people, narrowly, call themselves Democrats than Republicans, and on many domestic issues the public trusts Democrats more than Republicans. The Democrats get about half the votes nationally, and their last presidential candidate actually won more votes than Mr. Bush.
But, however slim their margins, Republicans hold the offices of president, speaker of the House, and Senate majority leader. As George C. Wallace once said, "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." So the Democrats' glass is not half full, but half empty, and it appears to be leaking.
Al From and Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that was once the showcase for so-called New Democrats and rising stars like Bill Clinton and Al Gore, recently wrote, "No party ever needed definition, or redefinition, more than the Democratic Party today."
Though immediate attention may focus on the 2004 presidential election, which Democrats could win if the economy remains sluggish and voters blame Mr. Bush, a victory would not necessarily reverse their long-run decline.
In the midst of another of their periodic painful identity crises, Democrats are composed of an awkward coalition whose clan chiefs have not yet gotten over the idea that power is the Democrats' entitlement and who therefore have not yet learned to sacrifice for the greater good. As Don Fowler, a former national chairman, observed, "Our party has so many disparate points of influence that we can never focus enough to achieve our programs."
They have been inattentive to fund-raising from small donors, especially by direct mail, a situation that has grown desperate now that the unlimited donations known as soft money have been outlawed under the McCain-Feingold law, though the measure is being challenged in court. As Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, said, "Without soft money, the party is in poverty."
The Democrats have generally spent their energy defending past accomplishments, from Social Security to Medicare, rather than seeking to refocus that basic commitment to the middle class and the poor into ideas that reflect how the nation has changed since those laws were passed. President Bill Clinton tried to reframe the party agenda, failing with health care, though succeeding with welfare revision and a few other issues. Still, after his troubles with Monica Lewinsky, he largely gave up and instead pushed small ideas, like school uniforms.
For years, Democrats have focused on the short term, both in mechanics and ideas, concentrating on the issue of the month or the year rather than articulating a clear identity, and preferring to try to rally their own faithful rather than seeking to win over the middle or even chip away at groups now heavily Republican. This approach is all the more glaring when compared with the Republicans' success at planning and financing long-range projects and developing a clearly identified platform showcasing a consistent set of issues over the years.
As Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster, put it: "My biggest problem with the Democratic Party is we think tactically and not strategically one election at a time." Mr. Hart said, "We take the issue we can exploit, but we don't take the party and say this is what we are about." The effect, he said, is that "we always seem to be buffeted by what's in the political winds."
A major reason was defined by Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987, when he would say that "in any other country, the Democratic Party would be five parties." He meant it in ideological terms, from very liberal to very conservative. By now the very conservative wing has almost completely deserted to the Republican Party. But the Democrats are still a coalition of interests, notably African-Americans, labor, feminists and all-purpose liberals.
The party suffers when it is blinded to everything but the demand of one faction. Last fall, even though the issue was plainly hurting candidates like Senator Max Cleland, who lost his race in Georgia, Senate Democrats filibustered against the bill to create a Homeland Security Department, insisting it was a matter of principle to defend labor rights that President Bush wanted to curb. But right after the election, they gave up the principle and let the bill pass.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, after retiring as a New York senator and unworried about giving offense, said in an interview a month before he died in March that it was unfortunate that the first time all the Democratic presidential hopefuls got together it was to endorse an abortion rights agenda and not some policy more in tune with reaching out beyond the party base. Defense of the medical procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion, he said, "was not right with the American people."
A veteran Democratic consultant looked at the 2004 presidential field and found it symptomatic of a basic party problem: "Sometimes we're so respectful of our diversity that we take completely preposterous people seriously. We always run the risk of the follies of the absurd when people want seriousness."
In particular, he said Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York and former Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois were not real potential nominees but "products of the silly season." He said that because Mr. Sharpton and Ms. Moseley Braun are African-Americans, an essential block for any Democratic victory, white candidates were afraid to criticize them over either their effectiveness or ethics issues.
Mr. Fowler found a ray of consolation. He said that while the party's diverse components limit its ability to attain big majorities, they also mean "you're never going to wipe the Democratic Party out."
The Democrats' minority in the House seems sure to continue through the decade. Redistricting to protect both parties' incumbents has left few battleground seats, and Republican money puts many of them out of Democratic reach. The presidency and majority status among senators and state legislators may be attainable for Democrats, but the party's extreme financial weakness could easily cripple those hopes.
Of course American political history has almost as many examples of revivals from near-death as the Democrats have presidential candidates. Republicans were dismissed as finished after landslide defeats in 1964 and 1974. Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan disproved those expectations. Then in the 1980's the so-called electoral lock was believed to prevent any Democrat from ever winning a majority in the Electoral College. Mr. Clinton disproved that.
And there is at least some evidence of Democratic revival efforts, though hardly any Democrat who appears to be a quick fix. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, talks of using computers to "find Democratic voters in those red states" (the ones that television showed going Republican in 2000) and to build a base of small donors. For more than 30 years Democratic chairmen have promised to go after small donors, and then have let it slide.
But this time the effort seems real, as the national committee is using various commercial lists to find out more about its existing donors and to identify prospects like them. One early return is that e-mail fund-raising, a very inexpensive method, raised $486,000 in the first four months of this year, compared with $115,000 a year ago a pittance compared to Republican successes, but still a significant increase.
Other projects include an effort by Governor Richardson to create a political action committee to train Hispanic political operatives and unify Hispanic voters across current divisions of those with Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or Central-American ancestors. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has set up the Partnership for America's Families, an institution headed by the federation's former political chief, Steve Rosenthal, to do the on-the-ground organizing that political parties used to do (and Republicans have started to do again) including going house to house to get voters registered and discuss issues.
Another project nearing realization is the creation of a foundation like that of the conservative Heritage research group. The Democrats' organization will be led by John D. Podesta, President Clinton's last chief of staff. In September, Mr. Podesta said he expected to open the tentatively named American Majority Institute as "a think tank that both generates new ideas and provides a hard-hitting and consistent critique of the conservatives."
But Democratic efforts to build a new infrastructure pale next to the layers of affiliated political groups, research groups and like-minded media organs that the Republicans have fortified over the decades, especially since the election of Mr. Reagan as president in 1980. And, as Mr. Hart noted, Democrats are not trying to make inroads into Republican constituencies, like white male conservatives (who gave Mr. Gore only 11 percent of their votes in 2000) the way Republicans are going after African-Americans and Hispanics. On the other hand, Hispanic voters are becoming an ever-larger part of the electorate, and still give Democrats a solid majority of their votes.
If there is one thing all kinds of Democrats agree on, it is that they need a better message. Republicans have a very simple agenda of lower taxes, less government and more defense while Democrats have generalities like being for the little guy and attacking more than they propose.
Robert S. Strauss, the former Democratic national chairman who says Democrats seem to win the White House only on Republican mistakes like Watergate or that of the elder Bush in ignoring the faltering economy, calls last fall's performance on issues disgraceful.
"We didn't stand for anything," Mr. Strauss said. "We got what we deserved nothing."
Will Marshall, an ally of Mr. From and Mr. Reed who leads the Progressive Policy Institute, said the party must "show that we can make progressive government work, not just defend the old New Deal monuments."
Bill Carrick, a more liberal Democratic strategist who is working for the presidential campaign of Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, said his party had "run out of gas." Mr. Carrick said Democrats would continue to fail if they chose to be "the party of incremental reforms, whether it's anything from school uniforms to prescription drugs, to patients' bill of rights." He said, "We've got to make the move away from incremental new reforms to big and broad issues."
There are two major elements of the Democrats' message problem. One is defensive on the issue of security. The public strongly prefers Republicans on national defense, and even though most Democrats in Congress backed the war on Iraq, at least a third of the rank and file was unhappy with it, which makes it difficult for party leaders to get too far out in front.
Democrats have argued that the Bush administration is weaker than they are on the other element of security domestic defense but have made no headway despite the fact that Democrats wanted a department created to coordinate the effort before Mr. Bush would accept it and have urged greater spending on domestic security than the Bush administration would accept.
A more general problem was identified by Governor Richardson. In an interview, he said it was "very vague, but I think it's out there, that we're not the party of optimism and opportunity, that we're the party of malaise, and we're the party of class warfare."
Two Washington academics, who often agree, take different views of the party's future.
Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says Democrats may have passed a point where "minority status gels and makes it exponentially harder to get back in" because potential candidates and donors see only minority status in their future.
Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution disagrees, seeing parity between the parties as likely for some time. He argues that even the lack of a coherent positive message does not matter too much. "Most decisive elections are a consequence of the public rejecting something," he said. The most effective message, he said, usually is the simple "throw the rascals out."
But Democrats these days lack the killer instinct that it takes to sell blunt, demagogic messages. As Bob Shrum, a prominent consultant for 30 years, said: "It's probably a weakness that we're not real haters. We don't have a sense that it's a holy crusade. We don't have a sense that it's Armageddon."
Or, as Mr. Gore's former campaign manger, Ms. Brazile put it: "They play hardball. We play softball."
Identifying With the Party's Traditional Themes
"I think that the Democrats are more for the lower-class people. Didn't Clinton get the deficit down to practically paid for? And where are we now? We're back worse than ever."
Retired advertising manager, Renton, Wash.
"I think the Democrats look out for the small businesses and the independent businesses. They don't put big corporate America first. Bush's tax cuts all end up rewarding huge corporate America, and he makes a stink that it's the little man that's getting a break. He got a $600 break. That's not a break for a family."
Homemaker, Ojai, Calif.
"I don't consider myself a one-issue voter, but if I had to be, it would be the environment, and maybe that for me is the real difference between the two parties. We all live on this planet and we have to take care of it. There's no guarantee at the present rate that there's going to be a healthy planet a hundred years from now for our children, and our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren. We have to take care of it now."
Professor of linguistics, Huntington Woods, Mich.
"I've always felt that the Democratic Party was more interested in the little guy. They seem to take all races, feelings and creeds into consideration. The Republicans, on the other hand, seem to favor big business. With the Republicans it's, `I've got mine, you've got your own.' "
Clerk, Lafayette, Ind.