For Democrats, Some Tactical Advice

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This column was written by Thomas F. Schaller.

A few weeks before the Democrats' 2002 midterm disaster, I found myself at a political event seated next to a longtime Democratic congressman. During a lull, I asked him why Democrats were unable to nationalize the congressional elections as Republican Newt Gingrich did in 1994. "It's a lot tougher for us," he bemoaned. "We're more heterogenous, and it's hard to find a message we can all agree on."

He was more or less right: The Democrats are the bigger tent party, making it difficult to fashion a national policy umbrella under which 200 incumbents and another 200-plus challengers can fit comfortably. Take Iraq, this election's most salient issue. Prominent national Democrats have staked out at least four positions. Feingold Democrats opposed the war from the start and want America to withdraw. Kerry-Edwards Democrats voted for the war, complained frequently about its management, and later admitted their war votes were a mistake. Hillary Democrats are akin to Kerry-Edwards ones, only they express no regret for their war votes. Finally, there are Lieberman Democrats, proud of their war votes and determined to "stay the course." From such divergence a concerted electoral plan is unlikely to emerge.

Even if it were possible for Democrats to create a national platform, moreover, doing so might be too risky this cycle. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute recently cautioned Democrats against getting into policy specifics because Republicans will jump at any chance to divert the voters' attention from a retrospective focus on the GOP's policy failures. The New Republic's Peter Beinart goes a step further, arguing that Democrats should aspire to be the "party of no ideas" in 2006.

Because a national policy message is elusive and might even backfire doesn't preclude Democrats from nationalizing the 2006 midterms tactically, however. Though tactics are no substitute for policy proposals, policy-making comes after elections are won and majorities forged. And unity among Democrats in tactics and critique could accelerate the Republicans' demise.

In that spirit, what follows are a handful of tactical ideas -- some thematic, others visual or rhetorical -- that would, if deployed systematically by Democratic congressional candidates, magnify and humanize their criticisms of President Bush and the Republican Congress:

Where's Osama? The mastermind of the September 11 attacks is still at large five years later. This is a colossal failure Democrats have hesitated to point out relentlessly for fear that, were Osama bin Laden suddenly captured or killed, Bush and the Republicans would enjoy a huge partisan windfall. But they would anyway, so why hesitate? Democrats should do as the Republicans would: Wait until two or three weeks before the election and start asking why Osama bin Laden remains on the lamb. (The Bush-Cheney campaign held its 2004 closing message -- that America had not been attacked since 9/11 -- in reserve until the very end of the election.) Democrats might enlist folks like Wes Clark or Max Cleland to put the GOP on the defensive during the closing moments of 2006 by calling for a renewed international manhunt and asking repeatedly, "Where's Osama?" It's a question few Republican incumbents want to answer in the closing moments of Campaign 2006.

There was no tax cut. The Democratic critique of Bush's tax policy is three-fold: One, the richest sliver of the population received the bulk of the cuts; two, lost revenues have increased the national debt; and, three, any windfalls the middle classes enjoyed are more than offset by rising health care costs, new state taxes and "fees," higher consumer prices, and so on. Simply put, Democrats argue that Americans didn't get much of a tax cut, what they got didn't lessen their financial burdens, and they or their children will have to pay it back with interest. In a country where most Americans pay more in payroll taxes than income taxes, a concise and electorally audacious way to attack the Republicans on taxes is to assert, simply, there was no tax cut. Democrats could invite voters to pull out their federal tax forms from recent years and search for the savings. Most won't find much, and those who do already overwhelmingly vote Republican.

Health-coverage solidarity. Instead of using the congressional health care plan, Ohio Representative and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ted Strickland pays for his own health insurance, because he believes it's wrong for constituents who are either uninsured or under-insured to pick up the tab for his coverage. Would any congressional candidate dare criticize Strickland's personal ethic? Members of Congress enjoy steady pay raises and cushy benefits at a time when millions of Americans are experiencing stagnant wages and higher costs for health-care coverage -- if they are insured at all. To signal solidarity, Democratic incumbents and challengers should join Strickland in pledging to refuse the government's health package, beginning January 2007, until they can fix the nation's health care system. The vast majority can afford private insurance anyway.

Sponsor a New Orleans precinct. Hurricane-devastated New Orleans has almost the exact same number of precincts (443) as the combined number of House districts (425) and key, Republican-held Senate seats (seven) with a Democratic candidate filed to run in 2006. Some precincts suffered relatively mild damage from Katrina, others were devastated, but all were affected. To personalize the criticism of the administration's bungled Katrina response, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee should familiarize each candidate with the specific details of the plight and progress of one New Orleans precinct. Americans wear colored bracelets to express solidarity with countless causes, so why not get Democratic nominees to wear Mardi Gras-inspired, gold-green-and-purple bracelets, each with the number of the precinct the candidate and her district are sponsoring? This would not only bring the nation's commitment to rebuilding New Orleans into high relief, but every candidate would have a specific story to share and a vested stake in the city's revival after re-taking majority control.

Fiscal lapel pins. Sadly, when Democrats on the Hill want to communicate, they still rely on the three P's -- press release, press conference, and (National) Press Club event. In the age of the Blackberry, this is akin to using rotary phones. Rather than issue another white paper about Republicans' fiscal chicanery which a few national reporters and a handful of voters will actually read, Hill Democrats should come up with three or four key numbers that epitomize big-government Republican budgeting: 0, for the number of spending bills Bush has vetoed; 4, representing the number of times the government has raised the national debt ceiling; or perhaps 300, for the billions of dollars thus far spent in Iraq. Take these numbers, put them on understated lapel pins, pass them out to every congressional candidate … and wait. National beat reporters and the local media will soon take notice. What they'll discover is another neat visual, like the bracelets, around which to build a story about how Democrats across America are calling the Republicans to the mat for their fiscal recklessness.

These tactics may seem like mere gimmickry, but each signals a commitment to either a policy goal or improved governance. Together, they cover a range of policies, from emergency management and homeland security to health care and taxes. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain in Off Center, the Democrats take false comfort from surveys showing that Americans support their policy positions, and this prevents them from politicizing issues for maximum electoral advantage. The GOP rarely makes this mistake. (Remember the thousands of pairs of flip-flops they distributed at the 2004 Republican National Convention?)

Nationalizing tactically is preferable to the foolhardy belief among Democrats that they can out-propose the Republicans to victory. Policy-generic devices like those listed above would provide Democrats with new, memorable ways of both conveying basic priorities and pointing at the Republicans to say, "We're not them."

By Thomas F. Schaller
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved