Democrats Need Some Free Agents

Donkey (democrats beaten up) with a black eye and leg in a sling wearing a suit over a the capitol dome and US flag AP / CBS

For eight-plus decades the Boston Red Sox had a problem. Then they hired Terry Francona to manage and acquired free-agents like Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke and solved their problem.

Though the Democrats' problems are far less dire, they ought to follow the Red Sox model and get new talent.

Most of the advice they're getting now is more complicated: go left, go right, more God talk, less gay talk, more class war, less culture war, drive south, avoid the north.

All this stuff will be talked, think-tanked and commented to death. Unfortunately, lip service doesn't do much for selecting new party leaders and recruiting a new breed of candidate. That's what they need to do and there are already signs they don't want to.

The hot personnel story for the Democrats right now is who will be the next head of the Democratic National Committee.

But the real news is what isn't a story at all: new leadership in Congress. That matters a lot more. That's the public face of the Democratic Party for the next two years, not the head of the DNC. And that's what the Democrats intend to do nothing about.

In the Senate, unless lightning strikes, the Democrats will be led by Nevada's Harry Reid with Dick Durbin of Illinois on whip. And unless Florida hurricanes whirl into the House, Nancy Pelosi will be the lifted face of Democrats there.

To use the technical terms of political science: this is nuts.

Senate first: the Democrats will squander an opportunity. Harry Reid is will liked, a skilled inside player and from a nice red state. But he is charisma-challenged and not even a close match for the telegenic and presidentially-aimed Bill Frist. Durbin would be a better choice, but still not optimal.

What the Democrats need here is either a national figure or a comer. One obvious choice is Joe Lieberman. Okay, he's not presidential timber or even kindling anymore. But he's the leader of the moderate wing of the party in Congress now and he's recognized nationally as such. Democrats need to exploit the national exposure presidential campaigns give their people and not just dump them as losers. For that matter, John Kerry would be a fine Minority Leader.

Chris Dodd of Connecticut was supposedly interested but scrammed when Reid locked up the votes. He wouldn't exactly have been a fresh, Sunbelt, moderate face, but he is at least well known, passionate and articulate. Same for Joe Biden and Jay Rockefeller.

A great choice would be Evan Bayh of Indiana. He clearly is White House material and the days of thinking the route up Pennsylvania Avenue is through leadership slots probably went the way of Bob Dole. Too bad.

The House is an even bigger problem. If John Kerry suffered from being from Boston, imagine what Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco baggage does for her. She is a poster girl of the kind of left coast liberal Republicans drool to run against. And so far, she has not shown good political pitch in the job, at all.

A better choice would be her current deputy, Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Harold Ford of Tennessee or Bob Menendez of New Jersey would both be good too. The fact that this list isn't longer is a problem for the Democrats.

This is Phase One; if the Democrats ignore it, it's less likely their presidential ambitions will be helped much be Phase Two -- winning a bunch of seats in 2006.

When Bush-Rove '02 wanted to gain control of the Senate, they want out and signed top free agents like Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole and made some very smart draft picks in Lindsey Graham, Saxby Chambliss and Norm Coleman.

The Democrats did not have a good recruiting year in 2004 and they better not mess up again in 2006. Majority Leader Frist has said he intends to retire and while there are no sitting ducks in the rest of the Republican class, the Democrats must aim high and run hard against incumbents like Trent Lott, John Kyl, Rick Santorum, Michael De Wine, George Allen, and Jim Talent. These are not exactly towering figures in American history. The Democrats might even go after moderates Olympia Snowe and Lincoln Chafee.

To have any success, the Democrats in '06 need stars like the GOP had in '02. They need to convince name-brand figures like Ed Rendell, Wesley Clark, Bruce Babbitt and Michael Moore (not the filmmaker, the former Attorney General of Mississippi and tobacco foe). Maybe even Al Gore and Dick Gephardt.

And in the long run, it's probably more important that the Democrats run well in the 2006 gubernatorial elections in the seventeen states that have Republican governors now.

All this ought to pave the way nicely for Phase 3a and 3b. In 3a, Hillary Clinton will be somehow persuaded, bribed, cajoled or blocked from running for the White House. In 3b, the sacred status of Iowa and New Hampshire will belatedly and finally be nuked. Those states are fine for Republicans to do their picking, but lousy for Democrats. If guys like John Edwards, Mark Warner or Evan Bayh are going to have a chance, the Democrats need to get that done.

Democrats can skip all this of course and stick with the stuff that's more fun to have conferences about. But then they'll end up like the Cubs and not the Red Sox.


Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer
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