[OVERSEAS VIEW]U.S. Democrats can seize the momentum

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[OVERSEAS VIEW]U.S. Democrats can seize the momentum

As I noted last month, the Bush administration is suffering “second term blues.”
The President is becoming a lame duck; the White House is confronting the political consequences of decisions taken in the first term (e.g. Iraq invasion, gigantic fiscal deficits), and his team appears afflicted by fatigue and insularity.
The replacement of Andy Card by Josh Bolten as White House Chief of Staff last week was just more continuity; it is unlikely to bring an infusion of new blood and new ideas.
As mid-term elections loom, moreover, the GOP’s recent successes contribute to its current vulnerability. The president not only won re-election in 2004; his party improved its grip on the House and Senate, while preserving a majority of governorships and state legislatures. Some would say the GOP has nowhere to go but down. And in five of the last six mid-term elections, the party holding the White House has lost large numbers of seats in the Senate and/or the House.
So the questions are: Can the Democrats compete effectively in November? And what difference will it make if they can?
The second query is more easily answered than the first. If the Democrats manage to gain a working majority in one or the other branch of Congress, there will be real consequences. They will have have the power to run hearings and investigations into Executive Branch policies at home and abroad; they would strengthen their capacity to influence or block the President’s legislative agenda, and they will be better positioned for a real fight to regain control of Congress in 2008.
Whether the Democrats capitalize on the opportunity remains to be seen. Highly regarded political analysts such as Charles Cook maintain that even if the Democrats have a particularly strong election, the odds are high that the GOP will hang onto control of the Senate, albeit with a diminished margin (currently 55-45), and that Democrats will fall short of scoring the net gain of 15 seats needed to recover a majority in the House.
Perhaps. Our election system and the definition of electoral district boundaries certainly offer major advantages to incumbents. The Democrats, meanwhile, confront problems of their own. Above all, the party’s base constituencies are not pushing a national agenda that resonates with the broader public. Environmental groups have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to combat global warming with scant results. Organized labor retains but a shadow of its former strength. Feminists are working from a stale playbook, as the country’s view of abortion has shifted to the right. Gun control groups appear virtually dead, and not just in rural America. And these constituency groups have been pulling and hauling in a dozen different directions, while exhibiting little disposition to rally around a broader cause.
Following the 2004 elections, moreover, leadership of the Democratic Party shifted, counterintuitively, to the left. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid express the anger and resentment of Blue State party members. But “I’m not George Bush,” as John Kerry discovered in 2004, is not exactly an inspirational platform. This week’s unveiling of the Democratic Party’s plans for “Real Security” broke little new ground, and attracted little media attention.
So what have the Democrats been doing to improve their competitiveness? More, I suspect, than meets the eye.
Between 2000 and 2004 Democrats failed to compete seriously in over a quarter of House races. Now they are hustling for votes in races all over the country, and are making some surprising inroads in the mountain west (e.g. Montana and Colorado) and border south (e.g. Virginia).
Spurred by the passage of campaign finance reform legislation in 2002, the Democrats have been weaning themselves from their recent reliance on fat-cat financiers, while reestablishing a strong base of smaller donors.
They are utilizing information technology and “bloggers” to create “netroots,” and they are mobilizing populist insurgents around a broader progressive agenda against an in-grown party establishment more preoccupied with preserving perks in Washington than expanding the party base at the grass roots.
These are genuine signs of organizational renewal, for which Howard Dean deserves credit.
In the end, of course, candidates and ideas are the decisive ingredients of successful campaigns. Fielding them will be the acid test for the Democrats in November.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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