The Democracy Corps -- run by three veteran political consultants, James Carville, Robert Shrum and Stan Greenberg -- offered a mixture of good and bad news for the Democratic Party last week.
In essence, their interpretation of their own latest polling data is that the Republicans are ripe for the taking -- but the vagueness of the Democratic alternative is limiting the prospects for a major comeback.
Although they do not make the point, their findings illuminate the most striking failure of the Democratic National Committee under the chairmanship of Howard Dean -- the reluctance to create the kind of policy arm that has rescued the party from similar doldrums past.
What the Democracy Corps trio reported is that each of their last three monthly surveys has found that likely voters, by 55 percent to 41 percent, say they hope to see the country move in a significantly different direction from the one President Bush has set. The survey indicates that the principal reasons for voters' disillusionment -- these numbers are far worse than a year ago -- are concern about the Iraq war, worries about pensions and Social Security, anxiety about jobs and incomes, and the cost of health care.
All these offer tempting targets for a Democratic campaign. "But for all that," the Democracy Corps memo says, "Democrats are at risk of making only modest gains in 2006. . . . The president's deep troubles have produced no rise in positive sentiment about the Democrats." To achieve their potential, the memo concludes, "they must pose sharp choices -- ones that define the Democrats, not just the Republicans."
And this is where Dean and the DNC come in -- or disappear. Because his failed campaign in the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries left him with a reputation for shooting from the lip, Dean promised, when seeking the party chairmanship last winter, to focus on grass-roots organizing and leave the policymaking to the Democratic leaders in Congress. That has not stopped him from frequently zinging Republicans. He has offered a series of inflammatory comments about the GOP that fire up the Democratic faithful but make some other party leaders cringe.
What he has not done is attempt to fill the policy vacuum that the Democracy Corps poll decried. He has left it to the two minority leaders, Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), either not realizing or not acknowledging the inherent limitations under which they work.
Because Republicans control the congressional agenda, the Democratic leaders cannot bring forward their own initiatives with any hope of success. The best they can do is block GOP efforts or criticize their policies. But that strategy simply strengthens Republican accusations of negativism. The tactic of not offering an alternative on a subject as vital as Social Security -- which makes sense in the legislative context -- does nothing to enhance the Democrats' reputation with the public.
When I interviewed Dean recently, he readily acknowledged that "people think they know what the Republicans stand for, and they can't say that about the Democrats." But he said he has his staff collecting ideas from Democratic officeholders, activists and contributors about the party's agenda, and he hopes at the DNC's September meeting in Phoenix to find agreement on "three or four broad things we all have in common," then use them in his speeches and on the Web. But when it comes to specific policies, he said, "we will follow the lead of Pelosi and Reid."
There's a better model available, should Dean have the courage to follow it. In the late 1950s, after Adlai Stevenson had lost to President Eisenhower for the second time, DNC Chairman Paul Butler created the Democratic Advisory Council as a policy voice for the party. Its membership included a number of governors, major figures from past Democratic administrations, party leaders and a few members of Congress willing to ignore the objections of the two Texans who then ran Congress, Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom distrusted Butler's motives.
But while Johnson and Rayburn worked within the constraints of the existing division of power, just as Reid and Pelosi must do now, the Democratic Advisory Council began to lay out the long-term Democratic agenda. It could not be passed in that Congress, but it became the substance behind John Kennedy's "New Frontier" campaign slogan of 1960 and of the policy initiatives that fully blossomed in "the Great Society" legislation that Johnson sponsored as president.
Once again, the Democrats need a vehicle for speaking to the country about the changes they would bring if entrusted with governing. They can find that vehicle in their archives.