AMID all the celebrating over the Democrats taking control of the U.S. House and Senate in the 2006 elections, I hear a faint hollowness in the exuberant self-congratulations among local to national Democrats.
When historians sit down to analyze the major forces that contributed to the Democratic victory at the polls on November 7, the reasons will not be that Democrats had the best political strategy nor that Democrats had the clearest vision for the future of the nation.
I’m convinced the chief reason for the Democratic victory will be identified as blatant Republican corruption and gross incompetence. Primary factors include the mistaken and mismanaged war in Iraq, the failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina, indictments of Republican lawmakers and lobbyists, and the cover-up of a Republican lawmaker’s sexual misconduct with minors. For these and related errors and hypocrisies, a majority of Americans simply withdrew their support from the Republican Party.
Republicans lost the right to govern the country because they’ve governed the country so badly.
Democrats did field a lot of excellent candidates, to be sure, and not all were successful. For example, Colorado candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats Nancy Paccione and Bill Winter, lost their respective races against ultra-conservative Republican incumbents Marilyn Musgrave and Tom Tancredo. In other races, Democrats barely squeaked by, such as Virginia Democrat Jim Webb replacing incumbent Republican Senator George Allen by only 0.39 percent of the votes.
A progressive Democratic agenda cannot be credited for a victory. While many progressive Democrats did retain their seats in Congress, to the best of my knowledge, all the new Democrats elected to the House and Senate are moderates or conservatives. The political views of the nation remain right of center. By no means can we say the country has swung to the left.
The sad truth is that the Democratic party still lacks a cohesive, inspiring vision of how they want to govern the United States. Democrats are great at identifying campaign issues, such as jobs, education, health care, social security, and national security. Knowing the bridge and wedge issues in a race, however, is not the same thing as having a practical plan for how to resolve those issues. Knowing what voters care about in the world is not the same thing as having a vivid picture of the world you want to create, a vision that moves people’s hearts and minds and souls, a vision that stirs people into taking action.
The Republican vision is simple and clear: Small government with low taxes and plenty of personal freedom. Never mind that the current Republican administration has given us the largest, most expensive, most debt-ridden government in the history of the United States. Never mind that the current Republican administration has waged the most aggressive assault on civil liberties in U.S. history. Never mind that the Republican myth is not the Republican reality. The myth still wins votes.
I believe that Republicans lost the 2006 election because they strayed too far and too obviously from their own myth. American voters could no longer pretend the lie was the truth. Everyone could now see that the emperor wore no clothes. His self deception was laid bare.
Democrats, on the other hand, like to speak in reverent tones about such lofty values as the common good, shared prosperity, social justice, and world peace. Few Democrats now in or out of office, I contend, actually have a plan to realize those American dreams.
Further, I’m convinced the Democratic Party leadership actively resists developing a new vision of governance that would share power with the common people. In 2005 I served on a committee of the Denver Democrats to work on a 2006 campaign communication strategy. We quickly realized that a communication strategy is pointless without a compelling message to communicate.
The committee devoted weeks to discussing the concept of “branding” the party. Every time I mentioned the need to focus instead on developing a message that proposes a far more inclusive, more empowering philosophy of governance, I was shot down.
The last straw for me was when a high local party official attended our meeting and essentially told me to stop talking about direct democracy. “We decided the issue of representative democracy long ago,” he said, “and we’re not going to question that decision now.”
And yet the matter of citizen empowerment is the fundamental question that Democrats must address if they hope to win again in 2008. If the Democrats in the House and Senate show themselves to be no more honest or competent than the batch of rascals we’ve just voted out of office, since the political cant of the country remains right of center, Republican may well resume control of government in two years.
Unless the Democrats can offer a bold vision of genuine democracy that can move the population back to the center or toward the left, unless the Democrats offer a more liberal or libertarian view of government’s limited role in our personal lives, unless Democrats take a strong stand for world peace growing from inner peace, I’m concerned that history will repeat itself. As was the case this year, I’m concerned that Democrats may not actually win the 2008 election. I’m even more concerned that, next time, the far-right Republicans will not lose.