For starters, Dems are harder to organize than are the GOP partisans. Republicans thrive on discipline and hierarchy; theyre amazingly willing to be led lemming-like in whatever direction Karl Rove decides is best for them. Whereas Republicans are cows, the opposition are Demo cats.
Looking back over the past 70 years, Democrats have attempted to overcome their natural unruliness by employing two styles of leadership: charismatic and institutional. FDR, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton were examples of charismatic leaders. They had that magical something that made Democrats, and a lot of other voters, feel that the leader supported their issue. FDR, Kennedy, and Clinton charmed voters; they were someone that the average person wanted to hang out with.
In truth, FDR, Kennedy, and Clinton had mixed records getting things done. Charisma isnt the same as effective management. In this sense, FDR was the best of the three. Kennedy was not a particularly good CEO, nor was Clinton. Both, however, were smart enough to employ competent people.
In 2006, Democrats are again without a charismatic leaderalthough Barack Obama will probably be one in a few years. They have to reply upon institutional leadership. At the moment, thats the triumvirate of Howard Dean, chair of the DNC, Nancy Pelosi, House Minority leader, and Harry Reid, Senate Minority leader. They are good folks but they are not charismaticthey dont have the kind of magnetic personality that demands your attention whenever they appear on TV. (Whatever one may think about Hillary Clinton, shes not charismatic.)
In terms of Democratic policy, Pelosi and Reid are closer to the action than Dean, so Ill focus on their situation--without denigrating the important role that Howard plays. Both Pelosi and Reid are relatively new to their jobs. Shes been in hers 3 years; Reid for a little more than a year. Pelosi is the first woman to ever be House Minority or Majority leader; a significant accomplishment, but one that comes with a costsome men in the world of politics dont take her seriously, which is too bad, because Pelosi is smart and dedicated.
Of course, on many important matters of national policy, it isnt sufficient for Democrats to just say no; the public expects them to explain what they propose to do. Thats the Dems problem with the war in Iraq. Every Democrat on Capitol Hill believes that President Bush has screwed up the occupation. To a person they truly believe they can do better. But thats all they agree on. Senator Joe Lieberman argues that we should send in a lot more troops. On the other hand, Representative Barbara Lee feels that we should bring our forces home tomorrow. There are as many positions as there are Democrats on the Hill. This diversity is a problem when youre facing an omnipresent White House message machine that day after day cranks out the same message, Were winning the war on terrorism in Iraq.
In November, Democratic Congressman John Murtha unexpectedly announced his opposition to the war in Iraq. Nancy Pelosi stated that she supported Murthas position, and urged the House Democratic caucus to endorse it. While the majority of the House Dems did support Murtha and Pelosi, a minority did not, including two powerful figures: House Minority Whip, Steny Hoyer, and the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rahm Emanuel. The Washington Post reported that the duo, told colleagues that Pelosi's recent endorsement of [Murthas position] could backfire on the party the two leaders have expressed worry that Pelosi is playing into Bush's hands by suggesting Democrats are the party of a quick pullout -- an unpopular position in many of the most competitive House races. If Hoyer and Emanuel had been Republicans, and pulled a similar stunt, they would have mysteriously disappeared and today would be part of the foundation for Karl Roves new swimming pool.
As a result of this split, the Democrats are sailing into the 2006 elections without a consensus position on Iraq. In many contested races, this probably wont make a difference. I asked an incumbent Congresswoman who faces stiff opposition in the fall, what she says to her constituents when they bring up Iraq. She responded that it usually didnt come up, as they were primarily worried about the economy and healthcare. Its likely that factors other than Iraq will dominate specific racesfor example, in Californias hotly contest 11th Congressional district, the issues will include Republican incumbent Richard Pombos relationship to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Pombos terrible record on the environment. Nonetheless, Iraq will have an influence on the national perception of the Democratic Party and in the 2008 Presidential race.
Most importantly, the Dems split over Iraq is a key factor in Americas failure to debate what to do about national security. Americans confuse Bushs persistent claim that we are protecting the US by fighting in Iraq with a stand based on principle. More about what the Democratic leadership could do about this in my next column.