Always the Party of What-Went-Wrong

By Dan Balz
Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Democrats have become too good at losing.

Even now, with the Republicans looking bruised and beatable as the midterm elections approach, the first signs of another period of Democratic discontent are emerging. Memories of past disappointments remain fresh, heightened by last week's Republican victory in a special House election in California. Public squabbles about strategy underscore internal unease. Nervous whispers follow brave talk about November.

All that is nothing compared with what could come if the worst happens in this fall's congressional elections: The Democrats will be plunged into another round of recriminations bordering on therapy. If you doubt any of this, if you believe this time will be different, take a look at what happened after 1984. And 1988. 1994. 2000. 2002. 2004.

A cottage industry now exists to help them through their post-election depression. All the participants know their parts. As Norman Y. Mineta, now the transportation secretary in the Bush administration but in an earlier life a Democratic congressman from California, put it two decades ago when Democrats were in a funk, "Flagellation is part of the program."

Democrats are experienced at assembling learned conferences to debate their future (while spending most of their time looking longingly at their past). They are experts at commissioning papers analyzing their weaknesses. ("Why we can't win with______." Fill in the blank with "white men," "married women," "rural voters," "people of faith," "more Latinos," "the middle class," or whatever group is considered the party's latest demographic debacle.)

Democrats also have a minute understanding of the fault lines in their own coalition (hawks vs. doves; free traders vs. globalization skeptics; establishment vs. netroots) and the competing arguments for winning (base vs. swing; maximize strengths vs. neutralize weaknesses). They even know whom to blame (the last candidate for president; all consultants; the nasty and dishonorable Republicans; voters who ignore their self interest; Howard Dean; Rahm Emanuel).

In 1985, shortly after Ronald Reagan's reelection landslide, House Democrats retreated to the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia to lick their wounds. Richard A. Gephardt, then the leader of the House Democratic caucus, told reporters that weekend, "We're not soul-searching and we're not in the wilderness and we're not without ideas." Ten years later, when he had to hand over the gavel to newly sworn-in Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), none of the above was true.

At that meeting, Democrats heard from adviser-to-multiple-presidents David Gergen and motivational psychologist Ira Weinstein. Weinstein told the Democrats they had to learn from Reagan's success the importance of developing a product and packaging it. "Reagan was sold as a unified product brilliantly," he told them.

Twenty years later, even before losing to President Bush in 2004, Democrats were turning to Berkeley scholar and linguist George Lakoff for similar packaging advice; he offered them such concepts as "frames," "framing" and "branding" in their wars with the Republicans. "If you're a Democrat, you want to really change the frame," Lakoff told the liberal Web site "The problem is that there is no existing frame out there. You have to create it."

Not all such advice is welcome or accepted. Weinstein's appearance led to hoots of derision (privately, of course) from many House Democrats at the Greenbrier retreat. Lakoff has detractors, too, who see his prescriptions as peripheral to more fundamental problems that affect the attitudes of ordinary Americans toward the Democratic Party.

Still, envy of Republican campaign techniques is a staple of Democratic soul-searching. After 1984, Democrats complained that Republicans understood the use of modern technology in a way Democrats did not. Then it was exploitation of television to create powerful visual images. "The Republicans have professionalism," The Washington Post quoted an Arizona Democrat as saying after the Reagan landslide. "They buy it and use it. We are losing our capacity to make our party work, and as long as we just sit here and do 1930s politics, we're going to deserve what we get."

After 1988 and 1994, Democrats lamented that they were still behind the curve in exploiting wedge issues and public grievances. After 2004, Democrats discovered (again) the power of technology and databases. "Metrics" and "microtargeting" became the new buzzwords as Democrats struggled to compete with the Republican turnout machine.

"The Republicans were . . . smart," Terence R. McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman, said after Bush's reelection. "They came into our neighborhoods. They came into Democratic areas with very specific targeted messages to take Democratic voters away from us."

Some things have changed. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) long ago gave up trying to sound like a centrist. But although few people remember it, Kennedy gave a move-to-the-middle speech in March 1985 that would have brought a smile to the face of Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

"We cannot and should not depend on higher tax revenues to roll in and redeem every costly program," Kennedy said. "Those of us who care about domestic progress must do more with less." And he added: "The mere existence of a program is no excuse for its perpetuation, whether it is a welfare plan or a weapons system."

That is still useful advice, and Kennedy no doubt stands by every word. But no matter what happens this November, Kennedy will remain the party's standard-bearer on the left, the yardstick by which the liberalism of any Democrat is inevitably measured -- usually by an opponent.

Perhaps Democrats can avoid another wrenching round of soul-searching after November. Given the current climate, it makes sense for Republicans, not Democrats, to brace for bad news and prepare for their own what-went-wrong debates. The last time Republicans faced such a problem -- after their 1998 midterm losses in the House -- they went through the instant implosion of the Gingrich era and rapidly embraced the age of Bush II. This time, the birthing of a new, post-Bush era will be far more difficult.

Democrats would be delighted to see Republicans go through their own public agony. But there are good reasons for party leaders and rank-and-file activists to fret. Maybe Bush will have rebounded significantly by November and will once again spoil their celebration. Maybe there really aren't enough good competitive House districts or attractive challengers to retake control. Maybe the Bush-Rove magic will work again. Or maybe the Democrats will find just one more way to blow it themselves.

If that happens and the Democrats fall short on Nov. 7, they will ask, "If we can't win under these conditions, when can we?" The first panel will convene at 9 a.m. on Nov. 8 at the Press Club. Live on C-SPAN. The topic: "Paradise Lost: How the GOP's Midterm Victories Demonstrate the Enduring Power of the Democratic Message."

Dan Balz covers national politics for

The Washington Post.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company