Friday, October 26, 2007

Gut Check Time for Democrats

The party that could win the White House and extend its majorities in both houses of Congress next year is in disarray.

In confronting a President with abysmal approval ratings, Democrats have managed to lose every major battle this year--over the war in Iraq, children's health insurance and illegal wiretapping--and dissipate the mandate that gave them legislative control last November.

Now the internal bickering is on. Today a sappy memo from a House aide blames it on semantics. "Why,” writes Dave Helfert, who now works for Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). “are we defending S-CHIP instead of advocating a ‘Healthy Kids’ plan?...Republicans have been kicking our rhetorical butt since about 1995.”

But imitating Frank Luntz won't solve the party's problems. True enough, as a new book "The Political Brain" argues, Democrats may be too cerebral instead of going for the gut. But their real problem is not language but leadership.

On the surface, Bush's intransigence and their narrow margins in both houses have tied their hands, but no more so than the failure of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to get beyond playing it politically safe.

Their approach to S-CHIP is symptomatic. Yesterday they passed another bill that inches toward the White House position with an Oliver Twist-like, "Please, sir, we want some more."

As for slowing the war in Iraq or stopping a new one against Iran, they have not only given up trying but talking as well. On the overriding issue of our time, Democrats have been cowed by accusations of "not supporting the troops" if they block funding. It's past time for someone to step up and rally them to try.

There are signs that something is stirring. Chris Dodd is threatening a Senate filibuster of FISA bill provisions to grant telecoms retroactive immunity for helping Bush-Cheney spy on Americans, and other '08 candidates may join him. Not exactly "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but it could be a start.

What's the point of winning it all in '08 if Democrats don't show the will and courage to change course between now and then?

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