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Searching for the Democrats -- The View from 50,000 Feet

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When the lead story in the New York Times is "Some Democrats are Sensing Missed Opportunities," it's an indication that Dems have got a problem heading into the 2006 elections. Voters aren't happy with Republicans, but they aren't thrilled with Democrats either. Outside Washington, many Democratic loyalists are seething because their Party has been so ineffectual confronting the Bush Administration. This is the first of six articles on why the Dems having such a tough time and what they need to do.

Here, I step back and take a look from 50,000 feet. Sketch what you might call the pilgrim's guide to partisan politics.

In the 2004 election, 37 percent of the population self-identified as Republicans. There are three segments of the GOP: the rigidly religious, the rich and powerful, and the wannabes. In America, ultra-conservative Christians vote Republican because they like discipline and hierarchy. They believe in God the commander-in-chief and Jesus his sergeant-at-arms. Right-wing Christians want everyone to know that God loves them and are willing to do anything, even kill, to get their point across.

The rich and powerful vote Republican because they want to stay on top. Unlike the Democrats, the GOP makes no pretense about being the Party of all the people. Their motto is, "If you have a lot, you deserve it. It proves that God loves you." The rich and powerful know that when the going gets tough, they can always buy a Republican Senator or Representative to do their bidding.

As the name suggests, wannabes want to be rich and powerful. They are firmly in the grip of "magical thinking," believe that if they emulate their behavior, they too will end up being rich and powerful. This is the reason why so many citizens, who really don't have much of a chance of getting ahead, continue to vote Republican. It also explains the popularity of Donald Trump And Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Most Republican elected officials are wannabes or, at least, start out that way. Aspiring politicos discover that the fast track to fame and fortune starts with running on the GOP ticket. Recently, many have realized that feigning allegiance to the rigidly religious right ensures their political career. George W. Bush is actually a birthright member of the rich and powerful, but swears that he has been "born again." Other Republicans such as Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback are copying the President's successful formula.

In the last election, 26 percent of the population said they were Independents, actually not a political party but rather a state of mind. There are two kinds of independents. There are those who think the whole political system sucks and hate both the Democrats and Republicans. They usually don't vote, as they think it's a waste of their time. They fill their leisure hours watching TV programs like full contact bingo. The second kind of independent actually does vote, but doesn't expend a lot of energy analyzing the issues. He or she votes for the candidate they would most like to have a beer with. In 2004 they voted for Bush because their gut told them that W would defend America and that John Kerry was a weenie.

Finally, there are The Democrats: In the last election, 37 percent of the population. There's a lot of controversy about who they are. Republicans see them as socialist barbarians led by "the cultural elite" and a handful of "feminazis." Independents look down on them because they believe that Dems read books and sip Chablis, when they could be watching reality TV and drinking beer.

If you are a Democrat you know that the division in the Party is between Washington DC Dems and those who reside in the rest of country. Between the professionals and the rank-and-file.

The Democratic Party is an unruly assemblage composed of a wide-variety of interest groups: identity groups such as feminists, GLBT activists, and racial and ethnic minorities; environmentalists; labor unions; anti-war activists; groups that are concerned about economic issues such as globalization and the rising power of multinational corporations; and special interests, such as crazies who believe that everyone has the right to adequate healthcare. If you came from another planet, such as France, and studied the two Parties, you might conclude that Republicans are like cows""totally willing to line up to be milked""and Democrats are like cats""always going their own way.

Because of the diversity of the "Demo cats," they are difficult to lead. The interests of coal-miners in West Virginia aren't necessarily the same as those of Cappuccino-sipping intellectuals in Berkeley. In the past fifty years, Democrats have relied upon two quite different strategies to unite the Party. The Dems have won national elections when they had charismatic leaders like Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton. They've floundered when they haven't.

My next column examines the state of Democratic leadership.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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