Standing for something

August 21, 2005

A WAVE of excitement washed over congressional Democrats recently when a high-roller lobbyist closely linked to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted in Florida.

The allegations against Jack Abramoff have nothing to do with Mr. DeLay, but they added to the impression that investigators pursuing Mr. Abramoff on several fronts are beginning to close in - tainting by association if not directly a Republican leader who has already been admonished by his House colleagues for questionable behavior.

When the malodorous whiff of scandal reaches voters already dismayed with Republicans because of the ill-conceived war in Iraq, sky-high gasoline prices and unwarranted privacy intrusions, such as the bid to put brain-damaged Terri Schiavo back on her feeding tube, Democrats believe the GOP rule will surely end.

But polls suggest otherwise unless Democrats come up with a positive and more substantive platform than their current pitch: We're not them.

In fact, no matter how low Republicans may sink in the polls, Democrats won't rise because they aren't viewed as offering a distinguishable alternative.

Voters simply aren't inspired by criticism, complaints and name-calling. Press Democratic leaders for a more positive message and the best they can do is platitudes.

"Democrats are the party of the future," says House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "We are here to grow a dynamic economy that will expand job opportunity ... expand opportunity for more education ... broaden access to health care ... protect the environment, and allocate resources so that our neighborhoods are safe. ... And we will do that in an accountable way that does not heap mountains of debt onto our children, and we will do it in a way that meets a high ethical standard."

Just how any of that might be achieved, she doesn't say.

Democrats argue it's not their duty to offer specifics because they aren't in charge of the White House or Congress. The truth is they just don't want to alienate anybody.

On Social Security, for example, they acknowledge that solvency must be addressed but they won't endorse any particular approach for fear of getting their fingerprints on a benefit cut or tax increase. Similarly, they complain that President Bush has no plan for extricating U.S. troops from Iraq, but offer none of their own. This is hardly a rallying cry.

Democrats in the left progressive wing and among the moderate centrists agree at least on this: Voters want to know what their party stands for. Yet there is no overarching theme that seems to tie them together.

If Congress cozying up to special interests is a problem, why not propose curbs in privately paid congressional travel? Should access to health care be expanded through taxpayer-financed benefits? For whom? How would Democrats reduce federal debt? Whose taxes would they raise? What programs would they cut?

Advocating pain sounds like crazy talk for anyone seeking voter favor. But standing for something is better than standing for nothing - and hoping that the other guys look worse.

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