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Searching for the Democrats - Telling the Truth

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Why can't the Democrats get their act together? Why are they unable to convince voters that they, not the Bush Administration, are best able to protect America? It's because many in the Party leadership have forgotten who they are. They've abandoned the values that represent the historic Party and the vast majority of rank-and-file Democrats. They're not telling the truth.

Let's face the truth. Democrats can't win by becoming Republicans, by placing tactics ahead of heartfelt values. George W. Bush and Karl Rove are pros at that game; in the past decade the Bush-Rove team have won election after election with one ethic: the ends justify the means. In the process they have duped the religious right, moderate Republicans, and most of the electorate--everyone but their rich patrons. In one of the great paradoxes of American politics, the Bush Administration, who came into office promising to "usher in an era of responsibility" is immoral; their only ethic is "what's in it for me."

Democratic loyalists are upset by what they perceive as the ineptness of Party leaders. What they don't understand is that they are witnessing the consequences of a backstage fight for the heart of the Democratic Party. Ironically, Iraq, the Economy, or any other hot issue will not decide this fight; it will come down to values. Which of two sets of ethics will the Democrats embrace? One morality is advocated by the Clintonista wing of the Party that argues that winning is everything, that the ends justify the means. This is Republican lite, a position based upon tactics that shift as the perception of the mood of the electorate changes. The other morality is advocated by a loose coalition that includes House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. This argues that Dems positions must stem from their values; that the ends do not justify the means when they conflict with historic Democratic values. The former position places great emphasis on polls. The latter emphasizes principle.

Many would argue that what the Democrats need to do now is win; that they must do whatever is necessary to take back the House or Senate. From this perspective, the tactics-first position makes sense. However, recent demographic data indicate that the overwhelming majority of Democratic loyalists are values-based.

The reality is that the tactics-based wing of the Democratic Party""the Clintonistas""represents a minority of Democrats. But, it's extremely powerful, represented by the Democratic Leadership Council, the campaign of Hillary Clinton, and the role of Rahm Emanuel as chair of the DCCC, among others. Therefore, tactics-based Dems have a disproportionate impact on Party decisions, which explains actions that enrage the rank-and-file: the muddled stance on Iraq and the choice of Governor Tim Kaine to deliver the SOTU rebuttal, to name only two. At least 75 percent of the Democratic rank-and-file are values based; they expect their Party's positions to be based on principle, not on expediency.

The deep conflict in the Democratic Party isn't over issues such as Iraq or free trade""although these are important""it's more elemental. It's about core values such as honesty, responsibility, equality, opportunity, and community.

The most result Gallup Polls indicate that Americans are deeply concerned about corruption in the Federal government. However, these polls also indicate that voters see very little difference between the two Parties with regards to their willingness to do something to clean up government. Honesty in government should be a wedge issue that Democrats can use to cleanly differentiate themselves from Republicans. If they were to establish themselves as the Party that can be trusted, this would provide Dems with a platform from which to talk about vital issues such as national security.

The practical problem is how to do this. In an era where many Americans regard all politicians as crooks, where they make little distinction between Democrats and Republicans, how do Dems develop a distinct identity?

The Democratic Party needs to take two actions. The first is to diminish the influence of the tactics-based, Clintonista wing of the Party. Of course, this is much easier said than done as Clintonistas have infiltrated every Party organization. The most prominent candidate for the 2008 Democratic nomination for President will be Hillary Clinton""a major proponent of tactics-based morality.

The second action would identify a Democratic Party spokesperson that, in the public eye, is a person of unmistakable integrity. Dems need someone who can stand up and say, "If you want the truth, vote Democratic." The only national Democratic that has both the reputation, and the charisma, to take this role is Barack Obama. He has succeeded because of his integrity. A skinny, mixed-race kid with the name Barack Obama would not have become a US Senator if he didn't have a good rep.

The Dems recently selected Obama to be their point-person on the issue of corruption. It's only a small step from that assignment to becoming the standard bearer for honesty; to the position, "Those of us in Washington need to tell the truth. The public needs the truth about Iraq, the state of homeland security, and America's economic future. Reinstate Democratic control of the Congress and we promise to conduct the hearings that will let you know the truth."

Obama can pull this off. The Democrats need values-based leadership and Barrack Obama can provide it. He can be the point-person for a revitalization of FDR's Party based upon telling the truth.
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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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