This should be the Democrats' moment: The Bush administration is caught in an increasingly unpopular war; its plan to revamp Social Security is fading into oblivion; its deputy chief of staff is facing a grand jury probe. Though the Republicans control both houses of Congress as well as the White House, they seem to be suffering from political and intellectual exhaustion. They are better at slash-and-burn campaigning than governing.
So where are the Democrats amid this GOP disarray? Frankly, they are nowhere. They are failing utterly in the role of an opposition party, which is to provide a coherent alternative account of how the nation might solve its problems. Rather than lead a responsible examination of America's strategy for Iraq, they have handed off the debate to a distraught mother who is grieving for her lost son. Rather than address the nation's long-term fiscal problems, they have decided to play politics and let President Bush squirm on the hook of his unpopular plan to create private Social Security accounts.
Because they lack coherent plans for how to govern the country, the Democrats have become captive of the most shrill voices in the party, who seem motivated these days mainly by visceral dislike of George W. Bush. Sorry, folks, but loathing is not a strategy -- especially when much of the country finds the object of your loathing a likable guy.
The Democrats' problem is partly a lack of strong leadership. Its main spokesman on foreign policy has become Sen. Joseph Biden, a man who -- how to put this politely? -- seems more impressed with the force of his own intellect than an objective evaluation would warrant. Listening to Biden, you sense how hungry he is to be president, but you have little idea what he would do, other than talk . . . and talk.
The same failing is evident among Democratic spokesmen on economic issues. Name a tough problem -- such as energy independence or reform of Medicare and Social Security -- and the Democrats are ducking the hard choices. That may be understandable as a short-term political strategy: Why screw up your chances in the 2006 congressional elections by telling people they must make sacrifices? But this approach keeps the Democrats part of politics-as-usual, a game the GOP plays better.
Howard Dean is a breath of air as chairman of the Democratic National Committee -- but unfortunately a lot of it is hot air. Dean is admirably combative, and in that he reflects a party that is tired of being mauled by Karl Rove's divisive campaigning. The problem with Dean is that, like his party, he doesn't have much to say about solving problems. Pressed about Iraq last Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation," Dean passed the buck: "What we need is a plan from the president of the United States." Rather than condemn a NARAL Pro-Choice America ad against the Supreme Court nomination of Judge John G. Roberts that was so outrageous it was pulled from the air, Dean averred: "I'm not even going to get into that."
Today's Democrats have trouble expressing the most basic theme of American politics: "We, the people." Rather than a governing party with a clear ideology, they are a collection of interest groups. For a simple demonstration, go to the DNC's Web site and pull down the menu for "People." What you will find is the following shopping list: "African American, Asian Amer./Pacific Islanders, Disability Community, Farmers and Ranchers, Hispanics, GLBT (Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender) Community, Native Americans, Religious Communities, Seniors & Retirees, Small Business Community, Union Members & Families, Veterans & Military Families, Women, Young People & Students." That's most of the threads in the national quilt, but disassembled.
What can the Democrats do to seize the opportunities of the moment? I suggest they take a leaf from Newt Gingrich's GOP playbook and develop a new "Contract With America." The Democrats should put together a clear and coherent list of measures they would implement if they could regain control of Congress and the White House. If the Democrats are serious, some of these measures -- dealing with economics and energy -- will be unpopular because they will call for sacrifice. But precisely for that reason, they will show that the Democrats can transcend interest-group America and unite the country.
America doesn't need more of the angry, embittered shouting matches that take place on talk radio and in the blogosphere. It needs a real opposition party that will lay out new strategies: How to withdraw from Iraq without creating even more instability? How to engage a world that mistrusts and often hates America? How to rebuild global institutions and contain Islamic extremism? How to put the U.S. economy back into balance? A Democratic Party that could begin to answer these questions would deserve a chance to govern.