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Searching for the Democrats -- The Leadership Issue

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Hardly a week goes by without a columnist observing that the Democrats don't have their act together. As a result, rank-and-file Dems have the ominous feeling that their Party is going to blow the 2006 elections. This is the second of six articles exploring why the Democrats are having a tough time taking advantage of Bush ineptitude. This considers the challenge of Party leadership.

For starters, Dems are harder to organize than are the GOP partisans. Republicans thrive on discipline and hierarchy; they're 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 isn't 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.

With the exception of Jimmy Carter, in between the Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton eras, Democrats relied upon institutional leadership; someone that the Party selected. The most successful leader of this type was Lyndon Johnson, who while hardly charismatic, was extremely effective getting legislation through Congress. Most of the time, however, Dems had undistinguished leadership. Try to recall who ran the Democratic Party while Ronald Reagan was President.

In 2006, Democrats are again without a charismatic leader""although Barack Obama will probably be one in a few years. They have to reply upon institutional leadership. At the moment, that's 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 charismatic""they don't have the kind of magnetic personality that demands your attention whenever they appear on TV. (Whatever one may think about Hillary Clinton, she's not charismatic.)

In terms of Democratic policy, Pelosi and Reid are closer to the action than Dean, so I'll focus on their situation--without denigrating the important role that Howard plays. Both Pelosi and Reid are relatively new to their jobs. She's 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 cost""some men in the world of politics don't take her seriously, which is too bad, because Pelosi is smart and dedicated.

Pelosi and Reid seek to run their respective caucuses by consensus. This is hard to do under any circumstances, but particularly vexing when the group you are trying to lead are Demo cats. The leaders have had some success getting their members to simply oppose things, as they did when President Bush's Social Security "reforms" were being considered. However, Reid couldn't unify Democratic Senators to block the confirmation of conservative Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

Of course, on many important matters of national policy, it isn't sufficient for Democrats to just say no; the public expects them to explain what they propose to do. That's 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 that's 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 you're facing an omnipresent White House message machine that day after day cranks out the same message, "We're 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 Murtha's 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 [Murtha's 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 Rove's 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 won't 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 didn't come up, as they were primarily worried about the economy and healthcare. It's likely that factors other than Iraq will dominate specific races""for example, in California's hotly contest 11th Congressional district, the issues will include Republican incumbent Richard Pombo's relationship to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Pombo's 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 America's failure to debate what to do about national security. Americans confuse Bush's 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.
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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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