When will Democrats seize the opportunity of president's slump?

August 26, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - If Democratic Party leaders were listening to me, I'd give them some good old-fashioned advice: Run to the head of the parade so that you can lead it.

As remarkable as President Bush's slump in the polls has been for his handling of the war during these dog days of discontent, so is the failure of Democrats to benefit from the president's tumble.

In an early August Newsweek poll, for example, 61 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Mr. Bush's handling of the Iraq war and only 26 percent agreed with his wish to keep American troops there for "as long as it takes."

As his approval ratings have diminished, the Democrats have not benefited. Just 42 percent of Americans approved of congressional Democrats, according to a June Washington Post-ABC News poll, a figure that was about 2 percentage points lower than Mr. Bush's.

And going into the August congressional recess, polls were showing disapproval of Congress' performance to be higher than it has been since 1994, the year voters swept Democrats out of power on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately for Democratic incumbents, their approvals have not been significantly higher than those of the Republicans.

The public sees the problem that Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska described Sunday on ABC's This Week: America is getting "locked into a bogged-down problem" like Vietnam. "The longer we stay, the more problems we are going to have," said the decorated Vietnam veteran and a possible 2008 presidential candidate.

With most of the congressional Democrats having voted for the war three years ago, many have a hard time admitting that they were misled. The result is a deep division between the stay-the-course centrists and the get-out-soonest progressives. The fallout leaves Democratic leaders unable to come up with an alternative policy or consistent message that offers voters a choice, not an echo of Mr. Bush's policy.

Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin last week became the first senator to call for a specific pullout deadline, defying the Democratic leadership. He later clarified on NBC's Meet the Press that his date, Dec. 31, 2006, is only a "target," not a "deadline," and can be pushed back if circumstances require it.

With that, Mr. Feingold gave voice to his party's increasingly impatient left-progressive wing, which wants leading Democrats to get tougher in pushing for a troop withdrawal. Call them the "Cindy Sheehan" wing, after the protesting mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. Ms. Sheehan's camp near President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch has invigorated the antiwar movement and put new pressure on Democratic moderates.

What are Dems to do? There has been a lot of talk in Democratic circles about how issues are "framed," a term by George Lakoff, a University of California, Berkeley linguistics professor who has advised party activists. Conservatives have spent decades defining their ideas, he notes, carefully choosing the language with which to present them and building an infrastructure of spokespeople through which to communicate them.

Democrats used to have the lead on that art, which today is often called "spin." Democrats in President Lyndon B. Johnson's day knew how to clobber Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the conservative 1964 Republican presidential nominee, by painting him as "trigger-happy." That describes the tunnel vision of Team Bush as they rushed this country into war with Iraq.

Today's issue should be not so much how and why we got into the war in Iraq but whether we want tomorrow's foreign policy and national security to be led by the sort of trigger-happy tunnel vision that got us into the current mess.

That's not an alternative policy, but it is the beginning of a real contest of ideas for both parties to offer voters. Richard M. Nixon, running against Mr. Johnson's war in 1968, offered "peace with honor." Democrats need to offer at least that much.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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