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Where's The Party?

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Six months after Katrina, and still no sign of life from the Democratic Party. Even back in Washington, where mobs of rich, white Republicans are still amassing atop the Capitol building frantically awaiting Coast Guard airlifts out of a city awash in a flood of cronyism, corruption and incompetence, congressional Democratic leaders seem nowhere to be found.

With only just more than eight months until the 2006 congressional midterms, Americans watching the nightly news coverage of the Republican Party's implosion in slow motion - and it's not over yet, folks - are beginning to wonder whether Democrats might actually retake both the Senate and the House this fall. However, recent polls, while unsurprisingly finding Republican approval ratings reaching new lows, are surprisingly finding Democratic approval ratings in the tank as well. Simply standing by as the other guy falls down is not proving the way to appear taller.

The Democratic Party has spent the last almost five years doing little more than aiming cannon fire at the Republican armada, albeit quite often justifiably. But as those once unsinkable Republicans are finally taking on water, Democrats, for too many years having offered no big ideas of their own to set them apart and keep them afloat, are sinking right alongside them.

Political parties win elections by winning the battle of ideas, however simplified or even misrepresented they may actually be. They win by offering a vision, even if that vision is sadly little more than one of safety and security. They don't win control solely because their rivals seem to be losing it. They don't win by being the lesser of two evils. History shows that when faced with a choice between evils, voters will always choose the evil they know.

Democrats must right now let go of the fallacy that winning the 2006 and 2008 elections will simply be a matter of doing a better job mobilizing their base in anti-Bush fervor. Democrats must instead learn to mobilize and persuade, rather than simply continue mobilizing the persuaded. They must face up to the fact that there is no great, untapped reserve of liberal voters out there. The supply has passed its peak, and Democrats must explore for other sources of energy.

Democrats, if they are to ever again taste national political power, must move beyond being the anti-Bush, anti-Republican party. If that were all it took to win elections, John Kerry would be in the White House, and Democrats would be in control of the Senate rather than having in fact slipped further into minority status in November 2004.

However justified, the Democratic Party's anger-driven, single-minded focus on the person of George Bush, rather than his palpably unjust policies, has been their undoing. An anti-Bush platform, cannot, by itself, hold the weight of all the pressing national needs deserving of center stage. An anti-Bush platform only serves to confirm the negative nature of politics, and harden the assumptions of powerlessness many feel to change what is.

An anti-Bush platform presumes the president as the cause of all our problems rather than, as is more likely, representative of them. Democrats must wake up to the fact that George Bush is just a man, and as certain as no man is an island, no man is either a nation. Measuring its political standing by the size of the bad headlines for the President and his party, and not by the size of any positive agenda, is a sure way for the Democratic Party to look small, and be just as quickly forgotten.

To have any chance of capitalizing on the Republican Party's self-inflicted wounds, Democrats must begin laying out a positive agenda beyond just kicking the Republicans while they're down. As good as that might feel, voters, especially the large swath of voters in the moderate middle, are waiting to hear from Democrats about their big, positive, visionary ideas that address multiple problems simultaneously while strengthening progressive and American values.

Weak-kneed slogans such as "there is a better way" inspire no one. Shotgun negativity on the part of party leaders appearing on morning talk shows brings in no new voters. And simply continuing to be the anti-Bush party will only sink the hapless Democratic Party further into the minority.
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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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