While Bush Stumbles, Media Returns To Bashing Dems For Having No Message
There is a theory out in the center-left blogosphere that whenever Bush’s numbers start falling again, the Beltway media steps in to bail him out, with stories about “rebounding” poll numbers, or with a spate of stories about how bad the Democrats are. E. J. Dionne, Jr. writes about this in his column today. If you want some validation for this theory, I give you two recent stories from two different papers. First, after his own paper reported earlier this month that their own poll (with CBS News) had Bush’s approval rating crashing to 34%, Adam Nagourney ran a piece in yesterday’s paper on the Democrats’ lack of a unifying message, like their own version of a “Contract With America.” Not to be outdone, a day after his paper ran their own poll showing Bush in trouble on Iraq, Charles Babington and Shailagh Murray run a Page One echoing the theme of Nagourney’s the day earlier: the Dems have no message. Both stories compare the Democrats’ lack of a message with Gingrich and Armey’s Contract with America, which wasn’t rolled out until 6 weeks before the 1994 midterms. And yet we are only in March, still six months away from that similar point in the 1994 election and yet the media is already holding the Democrats to a standard that the GOP itself didn’t hit. Reid, in the Post story, specifically downplays the importance of the Contract in 1994 and says that there won’t be a Democratic equivalent this year.
I have been as critical as anyone about the lack of a Democratic message. I have even pleaded with the national leadership to come out with their own Contract with America. Yet upon further reflection I readily admit several things. First, why should the Democrats roll out their attack lines this early, so that the GOP can undermine them during the next 6 months? Again, remember that Gingrich didn’t roll out his manifesto until it was too late for Tom Foley to undercut it with superficial votes or other meaningless moves. Second, can and should the Democrats nationalize this election this year?
In one critical way, 1994 is different that 2006: it was easier for Gingrich and Armey to nationalize the midterms as a referendum on Clinton and 40 years of Democratic control of Congress. This year, no matter how low Bush’s approval numbers are, I don’t think the Democrats can nationalize this race as a referendum against Bush, especially in red-state districts. The reasons for this are the war and 9/11. There are a lot of red-state congressional districts where the war isn’t as unpopular as it is in blue states, and where 9/11 is still a traumatic event that the GOP uses over its sheep.
That is why I think there is nothing wrong with the Democrats not having a “national script” yet, so to speak. As we get closer to November, the Democrats will figure out what 2-3 issues will work as a broad indictment of one-party control of the government, but I don’t expect to see red-state Democratic challengers reading from anything that can be tagged as a Nancy Pelosi script. The issues in those red-state races will be local issues, and would center on the “culture of corruption” or “rubber-stamp” arguments, rather than specific policy disagreements, whereas the issues in blue-state districts where there happens to be a vulnerable GOP incumbent can more easily center on national, anti-Bush messages. Sure, in a perfect world, the Democrats would not have a Nancy Pelosi as Minority Leader, but as Rummy would say, you go to battle with the Minority Leader you have.
In my idealized vision of how the party should operate, Pelosi, Reid, Emanuel, and Schumer would be sitting around a table right about now, figuring out 6-8 issues and policy prescriptions that all Democrats could run on between now and November, with those issues being hammered over and over again with effective framing. The overarching theme behind all of them would be that more Democrats need to be elected this fall so that the culture of corruption and the rubber stamp Congress would cease, and so that Democrats could act as a co-equal partner in the government. And in my world, universal health care and publicly-financed congressional elections would be a major part of that, since they are the right thing to do and would destroy the GOP’s lock on government once and for all.
But that isn’t going to happen, because of the GOP’s control of the media, their control of the money, their control of the agenda, and because of the effect 9/11 has upon the cultists. Plus, the GOP media continually demonizes Pelosi, and both she and Reid don’t make a strong case for the party, which was one thing that Gingrich was able to pull off in 1994. If I had my way, to be truly effective, Reid and Pelosi would shed the spotlight themselves, and appoint telegenic lieutenants to be the point persons in pushing the Democratic alternatives. As I have said previously, these point persons would be free of presidential ambitions in 2008, but would be charged with pointing out the GOP failures and touting the Democratic alternatives on a range of issues over and over again.
What is important at the end of the day in November is for as many Democrats as possible to get elected, and if that means that local issues will work in some districts while national issues will work in others, so be it. There are many red-state districts where there will be a vulnerable GOP incumbent who can be taken down by a solid Democrat who cannot afford to talk about the issues that many of us hold dear. I may not like that, but so be it. All that really matters in November is for Democrats to improve their standing in both houses.