A Party Waiting to Pounce

Howard Dean, left, and Harold Ickes in Orlando in 2004.
Howard Dean, left, and Harold Ickes in Orlando in 2004. (By Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda -- Associated Press)
By David Ignatius
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

If you're a Democrat, life is good right now. The Republicans are mired in Iraq and domestic political difficulties. The White House is rearranging the deck chairs. For now, Democrats can sit back and watch the GOP self-destruct: "They're on fire," says one party strategist. "Don't say anything. Let them destroy themselves."

The experience of being out of power and being the targets of Karl Rove's relentless attacks has made the Democrats a tougher and more cynical party. They think more about winning than about governing. Some strategists even see a virtue in the party's lack of a clear agenda or leader -- since it denies the Republicans easy targets. This strategy may not serve the country in the long run, but for angry Democrats this year, there is only the short run -- taking back control of Congress in the midterms and the White House in 2008.

Today it's the Bush administration that's struggling with its image and credibility. Yesterday's announcement that OMB Director Josh Bolten will replace Andrew Card as White House chief of staff drew tart comments from Democrats. "They've reached all the way across the driveway for new blood," says John Podesta, who became Bill Clinton's chief of staff in 1998, during a similar period of disarray. "When you're in a deep hole, you have to do more than that."

If the Democrats have a problem, it's what I would call the "Clinton blockage." As of today Sen. Hillary Clinton is the clear front-runner for the 2008 presidential nomination. Clinton "hovers over the presidential field like the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor," writes political analyst Walter Shapiro this week in the online magazine Salon. The problem is that Clinton is casting such a big shadow that it blocks out the sunlight in which other candidates might grow.

Clinton is building her own version of the Democratic National Committee, outside the control of accident-prone DNC Chairman Howard Dean. She has the best financial machine in American politics, and her fundraisers are signaling some big donors that the Clintons will be unhappy if they give to Hillary's rivals. Meanwhile, former White House aide Harold Ickes is creating a powerful database for grass-roots fundraising though his Data Warehouse project, and Podesta is building a solid policy-planning operation at his Center for American Progress.

Clinton's timetable is also a problem. Running for reelection to the Senate from New York this year, she has a strategy of campaigning as if she cares more about Utica and Schenectady than Washington. That's understandable, but it leaves the Democrats in a pickle. Clinton doesn't want to speak for the party right now, but she doesn't want anyone else to take center stage -- especially not her husband.

That is the most unfortunate blockage caused by Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions. Her undeclared candidacy denies her party and the country the full benefit of Bill Clinton's leadership. Paradoxically, the Republicans are making better use of the former president than are the Democrats. It's endearing to see him pal around with former president George H.W. Bush and his son, but it blunts Bill Clinton's impact.

Democratic leaders in Congress are gathering the ammunition to win back the House and Senate this year. They have crafted an upbeat, patriotic (and also somewhat vapid) slogan: "America Can Do Better." And they are beginning to roll out the pieces of a low-key 2006 version of Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America," which helped the GOP capture the House in 1994. The first installment, on "Honest Leadership," was presented in January; the second, on "Real Security," is this week. Three more segments are planned, on "Economic and Retirement Security," "Affordable Health Care for All" and "Educational Excellence."

The Democrats think they can turn the tables this year because of GOP mistakes. A top aide to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid says the party has been studying the formula for victory proposed in 2004 by Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon: "Who do you like? Who do you trust? Who's on your side?" This year, says the aide, that calculus plays for the Democrats. Even on their weak issue of national security, they have closed a 30-point gap in public trust to roughly four or five points, according to some polls. The Democratic message is: "The Republicans have gone too far. They're not on your side. They're not competent to lead."

The 2008 election is still a long way off -- too long, in terms of America's need for the clarity and change a new president could offer the country. Meanwhile, America is struggling with big problems, from Iraq to immigration. Will Democrats help the Bush administration find solutions? In the age of Karl Rove, are you kidding?

davidignatius@washpost.com


© 2006 The Washington Post Company