February 18, 2006
Democrats Misfire As Well

By John Avlon

Accidentally shooting a party fundraiser and then delaying telling the press: Regrettable.

Intentionally shooting down the career of one of your party's rising stars: Really stupid.

Vice President Cheney's hunting accident last weekend struck a nerve not just because of the inherent sensationalism of a second-in-command this side of Aaron Burr firing a gun at someone, but because for critics it served as a microcosm of the administration - insularity and incompetence resulting in people getting hurt.

But when Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee leaders Charles Schumer and Harry Reid decided to pull the plug on the U.S. Senate campaign of Iraqi War veteran Paul Hackett, they unwittingly encapsulated the reasons why Democrats have been unable to capitalize on a hailstorm of Republican mistakes over the past year.

Democrats don't seem to understand that politics is perception and that campaigns need to become crusades in order to succeed.

Hackett's candidacy in Ohio directly addressed the Democratic Party's deepest weaknesses - military credibility and red state resonance.

In an era of a war on terror, the perception of Democrats being naively weak on defense is a tipping point liability that can outweigh all other considerations come Election Day. It has been a long-standing problem - Democrats have never recovered lost public support as a result of their perceived excesses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the anti-war movement became seen as anti-American.

But with ten Iraqi war veterans running for Congress as Democrats this year - led in publicity by Mr. Hackett - the Democrats finally seemed to understand the need for a clear theme. Embodying the idea of 9/11 Democrats, returning veterans could be anti-war without being labeled anti-American.

This formula had already been tested, with some success, in Hackett's 2005 special-election race for a vacated congressional seat outside Cincinnati. While he lost, his 48% of the vote was the highest in the conservative district in more than 30 years. It is a decidedly red corner of the swing state that decided the 2004 presidential race. President Bush had carried the district by 64% and a neighboring district claims incoming Republican majority leader John Boehner as its representative.

Young, charismatic, and outspoken, Mr. Hackett quickly became a dream candidate for desperate Democrats. He was lionized in liberal partisan blogs for his unapologetic and immoderate rhetoric, charging for example that "the Republican Party has been hijacked by religious fanatics who are out of touch with mainstream America." For better or worse, he was Howard Dean with a Marine pedigree.

Initially, Senators Schumer and Reid encouraged Mr. Hackett to make the race, after 12-term Congressman Sherrod Brown declined. But when Mr. Brown reconsidered this past December, the senators apparently did as well. Perhaps they felt that the man behind the resume would implode in his race against Ohio's Senator DeWine, a centrist Republican who was a one of the bi-partisan "Gang of 14" who forged a compromise on judicial nominations.

But now the Democrats find themselves on the receiving end of Mr. Hackett's fire. He accused party leaders of "behind the scenes machinations that were intended to hurt my campaign." This apparently included calls to Democratic Party fundraisers, who were encouraged to steer clear of Mr. Hackett's campaign. Mr. Hackett announced that he was withdrawing from Democratic party politics permanently, feeling that his treatment amounted to "a second betrayal...First, my government misused and mismanaged the military in Iraq, and now my own party is afraid to support candidates like me."

The reaction in the Democratic blogosphere was immediate. MSNBC quoted one "fightingLadyinblue" on the mydd.com site as writing "Hackett, the 1st Iraq vet to run as a Democrat, in a time when we as a political party are trying hard to deflect attacks by the GOP right wing machine on our commitment to national security & terrorism. And to do this in such a crucial Red State like Ohio. Unbelievable!" The fact that the party seemed to line up behind an established insider as opposed to a populist insurgent candidate further highlighted how out of touch the Democrats can be.

It is a problem reflected directly in the Democratic Party's congressional leadership. Liberal analysts look hopefully to polling data which show public disapproval of Congress at levels unseen since before the Republican Revolution of 1994. They point to the fact that President Clinton's approval rating at the time was above 50%, while President Bush has been stuck in the 40s as of late.

But Republicans at the time famously presented a clear plan of reform to make the case for their election - the Contract with America. Current elected Democrats offer only vague promises of "a better way."

The Republicans of 1994 offered a coherent vision of alternative leadership that was effective in winning over and re-aligning swing districts. The current Democratic Party leadership offers the alternative of uncharismatic Harry Reid and San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi, backed by the polarizing visages of Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton. If you were designing a dream team guaranteed to limit the decisive cross-over swing voter appeal, this would be it.

The Democrats would be better served if they put their more than half-dozen Red State governors front and center. But the current party leadership seems determined to favor liberal insiders over populist candidates with cross-over appeal. As a result of this strategic mis-fire, even those voters frustrated with the current Republican-led Congress are more likely to de-align rather than re-align in the coming mid-term elections.

John Avlon is a columnist for the New York Sun and the author
of Independent Nation.

John Avlon

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