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Do Democrats Really Need Cohesion? - By Lawrence Kudlow

Much has been made recently of the Democrats' lack of unity.

Just yesterday, The New York Times ran a story highlighting the lack of cohesion among Democrats leading into November’s midterm elections (“For Democrats, Many Verses, but No Chorus”). The gist of the article is that the Democratic Party’s inability to craft a unified message poses a significant roadblock to their chances at gaining ground over Republicans in the upcoming election. The Washington Post printed a similar story today (“Democrats Struggle To Seize Opportunity”) echoing much of the same.

This idea that Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot by not having a unified message, or more specifically, their own Contract with America, is gathering steam and quickly becoming conventional wisdom in Washington. But like most conventional wisdom in Washington, I’m not sure it has any real merit.

There is little doubt that the Republican “Contract with America” was a factor that helped the GOP overturn the House after forty years of Democratic dominance in 1994. But its importance seems a tad overstated. While the contract certainly helped bring out a greater portion of the Republican base, it was just one of the many reasons for the Democratic pink slips. Another catalyst was the blowup of the congressional check kiting scandal. I’m referring of course to the discovery of corruption among various congressional post office employees and members of the House of Representatives. (You’ll recall that this scandal later reached its climax with House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) donning prison pinstripes.)

In addition to the corruption, in ‘93 and ’94 President Clinton raised taxes bigtime. While Bill was busy raising taxes, the First Lady was pressing ahead with her ill-fated stab at socializing health care. Republicans and independents were led to believe that the Clintons and the Democrats were going to be moderate (which is how they campaigned), but in the first two years, the Democratic machine turned out to be anything but. They were big taxers and big government planners, and therefore quite extreme. Add to that gays in the military which became a hot-button issue in the Republican base.

It was the convergence of these three factors—rampant corruption in the House, tax hikes and “Hillarycare”—that ultimately turned off voters. These were the combustible elements that ushered in the political sea change. The point here is that the 1994 Republican sweep was as much about negative voter feelings towards Democrats, as it was about the more positive Gingrich “Contract with America.”

The polls are suggesting that a similar strain of negativism is emerging in 2006. This phenomenon has the potential to really hurt Republicans on Capitol Hill. The Dubai ports issue (which I still favor), the war in Iraq, Katrina bungling, corruption in Congress (yet again), rampant overspending, large deficits, corrosive budget earmarks, are all are killing the GOP.

Worst of all, is the distinct impression among many voters that Republicans are doing next to nothing to remedy these problems.

The best thing the GOP has going for it is the economy. It remains strong. More people are working, evidenced by the historically low unemployment rate. And the falling price of gasoline certainly helps matters. But these folks hardly ever talk about this.

This growing negativism and dissatisfaction with Republicans might very well have reached its tipping point. The message is clear. The GOP must mount serious reform. It needs to eliminate earmarks, produce a truly lean budget, resolve the Dubai ports issue, get the investor tax cuts passed, somehow get Katrina off the front pages, and hope for a little bit of luck in Iraq. Bush’s line item veto to remove pork barrel spending and earmarks is also a good idea. If these things occur, Republicans can cut their losses in November.

Right now, I think they’re pretty close to losing fifteen seats in the House. Such a loss will change the makeup of the House altogether. Perhaps, if things go their way, and they mount a real reform message, Republicans can limit their losses to six or eight. (And then there’s the Senate which in my view is just as vulnerable.)

In the final analysis, Democrats don’t really need their own Contract with America. A negative campaign may work well, unless the GOP changes its stripes. At any rate, whenever I see the Washington Post and the Grey Lady promote all of this conventional wisdom (even though this one on the surface purports to help the GOP) I just don’t believe it.

- Larry Kudlow, Host of CNBC's Kudlow & Co.