Democrats Should Heed Lessons of Blair’s Labor Party

Posted January 24, 2005 at 5:13pm

While I was in London last week meeting with British Conservatives, Prime Minister Tony Blair once again showed why Conservatives in Britain are struggling to find a way back to political power. In a speech to the Labor Party faithful, Blair asserted that the success of his party is due, in large part, to its positioning in the “center ground of politics.” [IMGCAP(1)]

It’s difficult to dispute his argument when one looks at the strength of the Labor Party and the weakness of the opposition Conservative Party just a few months away from a national election. In leading a left-of-center coalition to political dominance, Blair has successfully redefined his party as “New Labour” and painted Conservatives as out of touch and bereft of ideas.

Given the statements and actions of Democratic leaders over the past couple of weeks, it’s clear that the U.S. opposition party could learn much from Blair.

After their convincing defeat at the hands of President Bush, one might assume some political introspection might be in order. But Democrats, since the election, have turned the exercise of excusing their defeat into a near national sport. We’ve heard them blame their losses on the wrong candidate, a failed campaign and a “conservative media.”

They’ve clung to the mistaken belief that had the election been held a month earlier or a month later, victory would have been theirs because, in their version of reality, Democrats were “right on the issues.”

Now, they find themselves in the worst position they’ve occupied in decades — a Republican in the White House backed by a more Republican Senate and House.

So, have they looked across the pond to gain some insight on how to push a left-of-center agenda? Absolutely not. They’ve retreated to the same negative strategy that got them to this point.

Just one short week after the president welcomed new Members of Congress to the White House and offered up the olive branch of bipartisan cooperation, The Washington Post ran a front-page story headlined, “Democrats Are United in Plans to Block Top Bush Initiatives.” So much for a fresh start.

The negative tone was hardly surprising. New Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set the Democrats’ obstructionist tone just weeks after the election on his first appearance on “Meet the Press.” When asked by Tim Russert about the qualifications of Justice Clarence Thomas, Reid struck hard. “I think that he has been an embarrassment to the Supreme Court. I think that his opinions are poorly written,” he said. So much for bipartisanship.

The Senate confirmation hearings for Condoleezza Rice gave the Democrats an opportunity to play the part of the loyal opposition, with the emphasis on loyal. But Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who makes Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher seem downright warm and fuzzy, grabbed the headlines last week by all but calling Rice a liar.

In doing so, she also pushed Democrats off message as the media focus shifted from the administration’s conduct of the war to Boxer’s interrogatory style, one that was more Grand Inquisition than substantive policy inquiry. Sen. Joe Biden’s (D-Del.) droning lectures didn’t help either.

The Democrats’ decision to hold up Rice’s nomination (which everyone agreed would pass the full Senate easily) simply to deny the new president the confirmation of his closest adviser on Inauguration Day was perhaps the pettiest move of all.

No one disputes Senate Democrats’ right and, in fact, responsibility to put tough questions to the woman who will manage the nation’s foreign policy for the next four years. But Boxer couldn’t resist taking a personal shot at Rice’s integrity; Biden wasn’t willing to cede all the TV coverage to his colleague from California; and the Democratic leadership was bent on sticking it to the man they had wanted so badly to beat. So instead of watching a principled opposition do its job, the country saw a petty, personal performance that did little to advance the Democrats’ cause.

Nor did failed presidential candidate and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s pandering charges of election fraud at a breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr. do the party credit. In a move designed to once again cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Bush presidency, Kerry belatedly claimed that “thousands of people were suppressed in the effort to vote” and, “In Democratic districts, it took people four, five, 11 hours to vote, while Republicans [went] through in 10 minutes.” Right.

This week, Democrats have been clucking that no president since Richard Nixon has taken office with a job approval as low as Bush’s. With a couple of exceptions, Bush’s job ratings are in the low 50s, not great but certainly good and, coming off an election as divisive as this one, not unexpected.

With an agenda that includes Social Security reform, tax reform, budget cutting and health care, Republicans haven’t chosen an easy road, but the Democrats have instinctively returned to what is now the well-worn path of obstructionism.

Last Saturday, Tony Blair described the British Conservative Party’s disarray this way: “They have learnt nothing. They still behave and think that our two election victories were an aberration; and that they are not in need of fundamental change.”

He could be talking about America’s Democratic Party. The question is: Are the Democrats willing to listen?

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.