A Dubious Start to Democrats’ Search for a National Leader

Posted February 2, 2005 at 2:57pm

In the hours and days after their defeat in November’s election, Democratic officeholders and strategists, as well as many political reporters and analysts, talked about the party’s need to increase its appeal to moderate and swing voters, including Bush voters in so-called “red” states. [IMGCAP(1)]

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) commented to The New York Times that her party needs to be perceived as “strongly pro-work, pro-responsibility, pro-duty, pro-service, pro-child, pro-seniors.” And Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) noted the geographic challenge when she observed, “You can’t write off everything from Atlanta to California.”

Of course, others disagreed, arguing that the party needs to return to its core constituencies and themes, which, in English, means “go left.” Still, most of the post-election discussion within Democratic circles involved ways in which their candidates and the party as a whole could reach out to Bush voters in Middle America.

But now, some three months after Election Day, it’s hard to tell in what direction the party is moving, or who truly speaks for it.

During the past couple of months, Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) has been more visible than most of his Democratic colleagues. He has blasted the Bush administration repeatedly on Iraq and called for the withdrawal of some U.S. forces from that country in the very near future.

Last month, Kennedy called the war “a catastrophic failure, a quagmire.”

Whatever you think about his view of Iraq and his overall approach to government, it is difficult to believe that Kennedy is the Democrat most likely to reposition his party to succeed in attracting Bush voters.

On the two high-profile Cabinet confirmations, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales for attorney general, Senate Democrats have been confrontational, not conciliatory.

The one Democrat who drew attention from those hearings was Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. California’s junior Senator has positioned herself as a “fighter” for years, so it isn’t surprising that she would take on Rice (or anyone else) at a hearing. But Boxer is a firebrand liberal from Northern California, not just another feisty Member of Congress.

The race for Democratic National Committee chairman has produced some rhetoric about reaching out to voters in the South and Midwest, but the frontrunner for the party’s chairmanship continues to be former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont.

Whatever you think of Dean (and regardless of his reputation in Vermont as a moderate governor), he would come to the DNC chairmanship with some baggage from his presidential run. Most Bush voters wouldn’t see his selection as a sign that Democrats are reaching out to moderate or conservative voters.

Yes, some Democrats continue to look for ways to reposition their party. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), for example, continues to try to find a path for Democrats to demonstrate the importance of their faith.

But Pelosi, while widely admired in the Democratic Caucus, wasn’t able to get Democratic National Committee members to give former Rep. Tim Roemer (Ind.) even a long look for party chairman.

You would think that when the party’s House and Senate leaders flack for a candidate the way Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) did for Roemer, they could sway enough DNC members to get the former Congressman into the top tier of candidates. But so far Roemer, whose great assets are his Indiana roots and moderate record, has attracted relatively little support in the race.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is another high-profile Democrat who seems to be trying to reposition herself. But she has a long way to go to convince red state voters that she, and her party, have the values and agenda that those voters want.

Luckily for the party, they don’t have to have a single leader now, or a unified agenda. They are, after all, the opposition, which means that most of the burden is on President Bush and Congress’ GOP leaders, not the Democrats. They would do better without having to pigeonhole themselves ideologically.

But Democrats must also realize that if they lack an agenda, they are likely to be defined by those who speak for the party on television and in print. And that could give people like Kennedy and Boxer — and Dean, assuming he becomes DNC chairman — more visibility than some in the party may think is wise.

Dean, of course, could morph from the liberal, anti-war zealot of the presidential race back to the fiscally conservative, pro-gun Democrat he was in Vermont. But even then, he’s stuck with his state’s civil unions law and with his rhetoric on Iraq.

Maybe the Democrats don’t need to reposition themselves heading into 2006 or even 2008. Events could boost their prospects anyway. But for a party looking to reach out to voters in red states, high-profile Democrats from Massachusetts, California and Vermont are at least curious choices to be the party’s public face.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.