March 7, 2006
The Democrats' Real Problem
By E. 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.

The pattern began to fall in place this weekend in the wake of two truly miserable weeks for Bush.

The stories 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.

The false 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.

Both said 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.

The Democrats' 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.

This failure 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.

The president's 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.

Bush critics 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.''

The cure 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.

For example, 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.

But Democrats have no good answer to Iraq. True. And neither does Bush, who started the war and should be held accountable for where we are now.

The philosophical 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.''

That summarizes 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.

What comes 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.

This is 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 our intelligence.

Thus, the 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

E. J. Dionne Jr.

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