Sunday, April 23, 2006

Whiffing on the I-word

(NOTE: This was actually posted on Monday afternoon. It was written Sunday night, hence the date in the title.)

I just caught Democratic congressman Rahm Emanuel's act on the latest episode of Bill Maher's HBO show, and I have to say, it was quite revealing - not about Emanuel, but about the current state of the Democratic party.

Emanuel, as most of you probably know, is the ex-Clinton aide who now chairs the Democratic campaign to retake the U. S. House in 2006. Maher, as most of you probably know, is the sardonic comedian who continues to demonstrate (along with Jon Stewart) that some of our most incisive political dialogue occurs not on the Sunday morning talk shows, but on their topical entertainment shows.

Anyway, Emanuel showed up to hawk a new book and talk up the Democrats' '06 election prospects, and Maher asked him, "How are the Democrats gonna blow it this time?" Emanuel responded by outlining what he views as his party's five-point blueprint for victory. In other words, an actual issue agenda:

1. "We have to balance the budget and put our fiscal house in order."
2. "Make college education as universal in the 21st century as a high school education was in the 20th century."
3. "If you work, you get health care."
4. "A hybrid-based economy, cut America's dependence on oil in half in 10 years."
5. "Create an institute for science and engineering," to develop jobs.

There you have it. But, to take a guess what issue is kind of important these days, yet is totally AWOL from this list? The issue that the Democrats' liberal base does seem to care a lot about?

I know, that's not a tough one at all:

Somewhat surprisingly, Bill Maher, who is generally a sharp questioner, failed to ask Emanuel about the absence of the I-word. So let's ask the question here: is it plausible that the Democrats can float their own version of a Contract with America, yet fail to state a position on the signature issue of the Bush administration?

This is not new for Emanuel. Last November, when he was asked about Iraq and the '06 election, he stated: "At the right time, we will have a position." So another question might be, "When is the right time, anyway?"

The problem, of course, is that the war divides the House Democrats (some want a withdrawal timetable, others don't), and the party remains petrified that if they assail the war too strongly, Karl Rove (now in charge as chief GOP strategist) will find a way to paint them all as Osama bin Laden's comrades in arms. Hence Emanuel's conspicuous avoidance of the I-word.

It's a political dilemma, however, because success in the '06 election hinges on an outsize turnout, and the liberal Democratic base is generally antiwar, and wants the party to at least engage on the issue.

David Sirota, one of the party's more vocal liberal activists, made the point last autumn, arguing that Democratic caution "has been the downfall of the party in recent years. People go to the polls to vote for political leaders with guts...not connivers, prevaricators, or cowering, weak-kneed wimps who are willing to make public political calculations while Americans die overseas. Until the party shuts up those in its midst who have no moral compass and who are willing to use their prominence to reinforce a soulless image, Democrats will always face a nagging credibility gap with the American people."

The same concerns persist today. The Democratic National Committee has just concluded a spring meeting in New Orleans, and, as this report indicates, the absence of an Iraq message has not gone unnoticed. Chairman Howard Dean gave a speech on Saturday that outlined a rudimentary '06 agenda, a la Emanuel, but again there was nothing substantive about Iraq. It was striking to see a former chairman, Don Fowler, contend that the party can do well in the '06 elections "if we find ourselves a message."
And here it is, late April. I've been hearing that line for over a year.

Perhaps the Democrats can win back a chamber on Capitol Hill by just hewing to the default position; certainly, this report today on GOP gloom, written by a conservative journalist close to Rove, might tempt Democrats to simply play rope-a-dope on Iraq.
But there's a big reason why the congressional Democrats are doing so poorly in the polls (70 percent say the Democrats are doing a fair or poor job), even while an unpopular war is being hung like a millstone around the President's neck. It's because most Americans, including a fair share of diehard Democrats, perceive that the party is still failing to articulate core convictions on the issues that matter most, even during this seemingly fortuitous election season.

And I question whether Emanuel's call for a science institute will send the party's stock soaring.