Democrats need to find leader with star power

April 27, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - What the Democrats could use now is a leader.

At a time the newly re-elected Republican president is being bombarded with woes inside and outside party, his Social Security reform campaign is fizzling and his war in Iraq is dragging on, the voice of the Democratic Party is a low-profile chorus of articulate critics who nevertheless lack star power.

The one Democrat who makes many of the faithful wish he was in the White House is the man from Hope. Former President Bill Clinton, barred by the 22nd Amendment from serving more than the two terms he's had, is relegated to the worthwhile if lesser task of comforting the afflicted after the tsunami disaster.

When a party is out of power, the formal leadership customarily passes to its congressional wing, personified now by a new and politically obscure Senate minority leader from Nevada, Harry Reid, and a stylish House minority leader from California, the aggressive Nancy Pelosi.

While both are forceful figures in their respective chambers, it's difficult to see either of them as presidential material. Mr. Reid is 65 and looks it. Ms. Pelosi is also 65 but doesn't look it; however, the most to which she can realistically aspire is becoming the first female speaker of the House.

The party's most charismatic officeholder, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, at 73 years old, has had his shot at the White House. And while he remains the most eloquent of Democratic leaders on the stump, he clearly is not the party's voice of the future. Also, he remains a favorite GOP target, and a spur to fund raising.

The two most recent Democratic standard-bearers, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Vice President Al Gore, ran extremely close races for the presidency, and by virtue of how close each came to winning might ordinarily qualify for a second shot in 2008.

Mr. Kerry has hinted he may try again, and rumblings are heard from time to time that Mr. Gore, after declining to take on President Bush a second time in 2004, might be eyeing another attempt. But critics of their failed efforts abound within their party.

The new Democratic national chairman, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, unsurprisingly has emerged as the party's most unrelenting and aggressive critic of Mr. Bush, continuing the slashing style that made him an early frontrunner in 2004 but eventually sent him crashing.

But having pledged in his successful campaign for the party chairmanship not to seek the presidential nomination in 2008, Dr. Dean has confined himself mostly to party-building at the state and local levels.

As for rising stars in the ranks emerging as the voice of the party, recently retired Sen. John Edwards has focused on a private civic project back home in North Carolina and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is keeping a relatively low profile, concentrating on seeking re-election next year.

Because of all this, the Democrats have not been able to take full advantage of the considerable political woes afflicting Mr. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Minority Leader Tom DeLay.

Even so, polls indicate falling fortunes for the president. The latest ABC News-Washington Post survey has Mr. Bush's job approval at 47 percent, matching his all-time low. At the same time, Dr. Frist's threat to end filibusters of judicial nominees and Mr. DeLay's ethics problems are drawing negative reactions among voters surveyed.

Democrats thus do have cause for optimism - but less than they might, if they only had another Bill Clinton.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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