Without Power, Democrats Lose Their Direction


Has anyone canvassed Dr. Phil? Or checked in with Dear Abby?

They may be the last two self-help gurus who haven’t weighed in recently with guidance for the nation’s oldest political party.

For Democrats, apparently, this is advice month.

Got an idea for reconnecting with the suburbs, cracking the “red” states, building a “new progressive infrastructure,” rethinking political communication in the “post-broadcast era,” redefining the Democratic “brand” or taking the fight to the Republicans in all corners of the country?

Get in line.

Last weekend, Democrats got an earful from the bloggers and Internet activists who gathered in Las Vegas for the first convention sponsored by the popular Daily Kos website.


The activists, journalists and elected officials who convened with Kos had barely caught a quick nap after the red-eye when the Campaign for America’s Future summoned them to a Washington hotel for three days of noodling about how to promote “the common good” and “take back America.”

More of the same, and then some, is due this week.

On Monday, three veteran Democratic thinkers -- pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, public opinion analyst Ruy Teixeira and Bill Galston, a political philosopher who sometimes masquerades as a policy wonk -- are launching a new online journal, the Democratic Strategist. On Tuesday, Andrei Cherny and Kenneth S. Baer, two brainy younger Democrats, are rolling out an old-fashioned, dead-tree quarterly, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. It seems no one wanted to compete with reruns of “Lost” on Wednesday. But on Thursday, the Democrats gather again when the centrist group formerly known as the New Democrat Network -- which has reinvented itself as an eclectic, future-oriented bridge between the party’s left and center known as NDN -- holds a two-day conference modestly titled: “What Comes Next: A New Politics for America.”

Far be it for a newspaper columnist to discourage people from offering unsolicited instruction. But this ocean of advice for Democrats may be as much a symptom of the party’s problems as a cure for them.

Many of the people involved in all of this -- and the Democratic therapy sessions unfolding daily in liberal magazines and on websites across the Internet -- are very smart. And much of the work they are producing is thoughtful and innovative.

Yet the sheer volume of it speaks to the fundamental problem the Democrats face at a moment when Republicans control all levers of government: It is extremely difficult for a party entirely out of power to “redefine its brand,” rethink its approaches or even set a coherent plan for getting from lunch to dinner.

Consider the most common critique emerging from these conferences and publications. Almost without exception, the Democratic advice-givers complain that the party has failed to offer sufficiently bold alternatives to President Bush.


That’s hardly an unreasonable conclusion. House Democrats last week couldn’t agree on a unified alternative to the Republican resolution supporting the Iraq war. The energy component of the modest party agenda congressional leaders released last week didn’t include any measure to improve the fuel economy of cars and trucks, the most important step America could take to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. On healthcare, probably the largest unaddressed domestic need under Bush, Democrats have been mute for years.

Is the problem a lack of nerve among Democratic leaders? That may be part of the equation. But the larger problem is a shortage of power, measured in control of the institutions (the White House, the House, the Senate) that transform ideas into laws.

Power is the only thing that can compel a party to agree on what it really wants to achieve. A president must decide what policies to propose; a legislative majority must decide what bills to pass.

Without that responsibility, parties almost always indulge in the narcissism of small differences. That’s what has happened to Democrats during the Bush years, as too many legislators have refused to sublimate their disagreements to unite behind ambitious ideas.

That doesn’t mean there’s no value in these efforts to define new directions for Democrats. As Cherny notes, Republicans replenished their intellectual capital -- incubating ideas like supply-side economics and individual investment accounts under Social Security -- while Democrats dominated Washington for most of the 1960s and 1970s.

But those ideas didn’t truly become part of the GOP “brand” until Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush absorbed, modified and then won presidential elections with them. The intellectual work during the wilderness years helped sketch a new party consensus -- but that agreement only hardened after the election of a president who put his distinctive stamp on it.

Similarly, there are no shortcuts for Democrats. No matter how many good ideas the advice class develops, Democrats aren’t likely to reach a new internal consensus or significantly improve their public image until the party receives another chance to govern.

It could begin that process by recapturing a majority in the House or Senate this fall. More likely, the party won’t set a decisive direction until it elects its next president.

The current flurry of Democratic activity rests on the understandable belief that conservatives have outstripped liberals in building an “infrastructure” of think tanks and media outlets to develop and disseminate their ideas. But parties don’t live by infrastructure alone. If Democrats can’t find a candidate in 2008 that recaptures some of the voters they have lost since Bill Clinton’s reelection 10 years ago, they can book the hotel space for another round of these conferences in 2009.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Sunday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ website at