March 7, 2006
The Democrats' Real Problem
J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- It is now an ingrained journalistic habit: After a
period of bad news for President Bush, media outlets invariably
devote time and space to ``balancing'' stories that all say more
or less: ``Yes, the Republicans are in trouble, but the Democrats
have no alternatives, no plans,'' etc.
began to fall in place this weekend in the wake of two truly miserable
weeks for Bush.
about the Democrats are by no means flatly false -- Democrats
don't yet have a fully worked-out alternative program -- but they
are based on a false premise, and they underestimate what I'll
call the positive power of negative thinking.
premise is that oppositions win midterm elections by offering
a clear program, such as the Republicans' 1994 Contract with America.
I've been testing this idea with such architects of the 1994 Republican
Revolution as former Rep. Vin Weber and Tony Blankley, who was
Newt Gingrich's top communications adviser and now edits the Washington
Times' editorial page.
the main contribution of the contract was to give inexperienced
Republican candidates something to say once the political tide
started moving the GOP's way. But both insisted that it was disaffection
with Bill Clinton, not the contract, which created the Republicans'
opportunity -- something former Sen. Bob Dole said at the time.
real problem is that they have failed to show that their critique
of the Republican status quo is the essential first step toward
an alternative program.
has made it easier for Republicans to cast anti-Bush feeling (aka,
``Bush hatred'') as a psychological disorder. The GOP shrewdly
makes the president's critics look crazed and suggests that opposition
to Bush is of no more significance than, say, the loathing that
many watchers of ``American Idol'' love to express toward Simon
Cowell, the meanest of the show's judges.
critics need to identify precisely why they oppose him, not only
so they can make clear that they are not psycho basket cases,
but also to convey that they know what needs to be put right.
will almost always point first to the administration's arrogance,
a word used recently not by some left-wing Bush hater, but by
the loyal conservative writer Byron York. In The New Republic,
York chose the A-word to explain why Republicans are
turning on the White House's ``we-know-best approach.''
for an arrogant government that doesn't take critics seriously
is accountability. Divided government never looked so good. That's
especially true at a moment when polls suggest that a majority
is yearning for more competence and greater moderation.
moderates and liberals alike are mystified by budget policies
saddling our kids with debt tomorrow to pay for tax cuts for the
wealthy today. Moderating this radical fiscal approach is something
the voters clearly could accomplish with their ballots this fall.
have no good answer to Iraq. True. And neither does Bush, who
started the war and should be held accountable for where we are
man who owns our neighborhood Chinese restaurant recently shared
with me a brilliant aphorism to describe how to build a good business.
``You have to do the right thing,'' he said, ``and you have to
do the thing right.''
what unites Bush's Iraq critics. Many Americans opposed the war
in the first place, but many who supported it are aghast that
the administration did the thing so badly by not dispatching enough
troops to achieve order at the outset, and by failing to plan
for the inevitable conflicts that would arise among the country's
ethnic and religious groups.
from this is not isolationism but an awareness that even a very
powerful country needs to be a careful steward of its power. It
should never go into a war without considering the probability
of unintended consequences or without planning for the worst case
and not just the best one.
the basis for a saner foreign policy in the long run. As for Iraq,
the voters should let the president know that he can no longer
keep repeating his rah-rah mantras about standing down when the
Iraqis stand up. Presidents deserve to be punished for insulting
real shortcoming of Democratic leaders is not that they don't
have a program, but that they have not yet persuaded opinion-makers
that fighting bad policies can be a constructive thing to do --
and that keeping matters from getting worse is sometimes the most
positive alternative on offer.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group