The results seem to be in, from pretty much every quarter: Congressional Democrats' new theme or campaign program or whatever it is it's supposed to be exactly is just embarrassingly lame. Frank Rich says so. Jo-Ann Mort says so. If you haven't heard, it's A New Direction for America. So you can see what they mean.
In his Sunday Times column, Rich quotes Tony Fabrizio's line from last April: "The good news is Democrats don't have much of a plan. The bad news is they may not need one."
I don't want to pump this line up too much because it plays to this pattern of Democratic hand-wringing that Republicans play up, knowing that it feeds ingrained perceptions of Democratic haplessness, indecisiveness and thus unworthiness to hold office.
But I take some solace from the fact that I think it is largely true, especially in the second clause, though not in just the way Fabrizio thinks.
Political insiders consistently overstate the importance of slogans and programs. Political tides aren't unleashed or weathered because of message discipline or thematic fine-tuning. They come about because of failures or victories abroad, big motions in the economy, or judgments coalescing in the public mind in ways that are as inscrutable in their origins as they can be transparent in their effects.
1994 is a classic example. The Contract with America is now judged a seminal political act whereas in fact, I would say, it had little if anything to do with the result of that watershed election. 1994 happened because Bill Clinton was very unpopular two years into his first term. A new wave of right-wing politics -- bound up with but not limited to talk radio -- had been building steam since the beginning of the Bush years. Clinton's unpopularity both stemmed from that wave and helped crystallize it. Add to these factors the fact that redistricting, a wave of retirements and unified Democratic control in Washington for the first time in a generation all made the South ripe for finally flipping over into the hands of the Republican party at the Congressional level.
In saying this I'm not suggesting that anyone just sit back and let history happen. Politics matters. Organization matters. Message matters. But there's a line from Seneca in which he says, "Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling." And there's a political corollary to this as well. Voters are making a decision about Bush's presidency and the Republican ascendency in Washington. If voters aren't happy with them, Nancy Pelosi's unoriginality or tone deafness won't be able to stop that judgment any more than President Bush's handlers can goose his poll numbers.
So, yes, the new theme is dopey and flaccid. But the only thing worse than that would be getting too upset about it. On the Democratic side, the punch of this election is going to come from individual candidates willing to be fiercely candid with voters and fight Republicans tooth and nail.
Let's be honest. What is this election about?
It's not about the Democrats. 2008 may be about the Democrats. Maybe 2010. Not 2006. 2006 is about George W. Bush and the Republican party. And, specifically, how many people are fed up with what's happened over the last six years and want to make a change? The constitution gives the people only one way to do that in 2006 -- put a hard brake on the president's power by turning one or both houses of Congress over to the opposition party.
That's why Newt Gingrich was so on the mark, ironically, when he suggested the Democrats' slogan should be "Had Enough?" (As a way of understanding Gingrich's particular genius, consider that "Had Enough?" and "A New Direction for America" are actually two ways of saying the exact same thing -- with the first forceful and infectious and the second limp and denatured.) Everything else the election is allegedly about is chatter. The details are so many fine points about making the sale, framing the question. And, yes, those are important. But that is the question. And nothing the geniuses on either side do will change that from being the question.
Here's what Reed Hundt said last week ...
The Republican game plan is emerging. Its three points appear to be: anti gay (save marriage for straights), anti aliens (save America for citizens), and anti troop withdrawal (except when they announce they've secured Iraq).
This plan calls out their base. All off-year elections, and many Presidential elections, are won by turn-out, and 2006 promises to be no different.
Democrats running for office in any state need to formulate a three-part challenge, which might be called an attack by the uncharitable, or could be called aggressive by those who know elections are more like boxing than chess.
This is exactly right. Go on the attack. Remind people why they have had enough. The prescription just isn't going to come from the leadership offices on Capitol Hill. It's up to you.