Now that the IRA has agreed to lay down their arms, maybe the Democrats will take a cue. With polls showing President Bush at historically low levels of support and his administration mired in an unpopular war and internal scandal, the Democrats have shown no ability seize the moment. For months, Democratic strategists have been warning their leaders to get a message – any message. And for months, Democrats have been floundering.
This week the floundering gave way to open warfare. The labor movement broke in two, the battle between the left and centrists flared up again and Democrats in Congress imploded over a consultant who has been working pro-bono for two years trying to re-brand the party. Americans Coming Together, the Democratic front group that massively organized the grassroots in 2004 now looks more like Americans Coming Apart, downsizing its operations and concentrating on research until money and support can be found.
Hillary Clinton put on her best her school-marm-in chief persona in a speech to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council on Monday and set off a firestorm by telling the kids to stop the fighting. "Now, I know the DLC has taken some shots from some within our party and that it has returned fire, too. Well, I think it's high time for a ceasefire; time for all Democrats to work together based on the fundamental values we all share, values violated every day in Washington by the ideologues of the Republican right."
Even though she was chastising the centrists, liberals got mad the she would even associate with the group Jesse Jackson once referred to as the Democratic Leisure Class. Roger Hickey from the liberal Campaign for America's Future told the Washington Post, "There has been an activist resurgence in the Democratic Party in recent years, and Hillary risks ensuring that there's a candidate to her left appealing to those activists who don't much like the DLC."
The ugly breakup of the AFL-CIO threatens to hurt Democrats where it really counts – in campaign contributions and workers. Especially threatened is the centralized operation of training and voter contact that is run out of the AFL-CIO and the database of 17.5 million names that has been created since John Sweeney took over in 1995. On the other hand, several Democrats who have done a lot of work with labor on political campaigns say some of the doom and gloom rhetoric is overblown. "Campaigns are organized on the state and local level and unions on both sides of this fight are the staunchest of Democratic allies and will continue to work to elect candidates," one operative who has friends on both sides told me. The real disaster, he said, is the decline in union members overall and Democrats should help those organizing efforts to assure they get more votes on Election Day.
But it is the lack of message more than the fighting that is really creating stress inside party circles. Democrats know they need one but can't figure out what it is. One guru, former Madison Avenue ad guy Peter Yanowitch, has now been demoted from his pro-bono job in favor of political consultants who Democratic officials maligned a few months ago. Many were hoping that a good fight over a Supreme Court judge might unify the unhappy campers, but so far Judge Roberts is not giving them the fodder they were hoping for. Attacking Bush, Karl Rove, John Bolton and Social Security makes them happy, but deep down they long to be positive. If only they could figure out what to be positive about.
They seem to be in the market for answers, but if you offer any you better duck. The fur is flying.