- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

The Democratic governors were in town the other day to talk about why Democrats keep losing presidential elections and what can be done to stop their party’s political erosion.

Ironically, one of their complaints was that their party has become too Washington-fixated, though this is where they decided to hold their daylong strategy sessions. But this is where the national news media is, and they were looking for some attention and knew they wouldn’t get it if they met in Altoona or Cleveland.

Even so, many of them, from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, complained that their party’s leadership has become trapped in a Washington mindset and culture that has lost touch with its base in the real world. Mr. Rendell said party leaders even talk in a kind of “Washingtonese” that few Democrats at the local and state levels understand, and that does not connect with the bedrock values of ordinary people.

Others, such as Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, want a new party spokesperson who can talk about such subjects as faith and values. Some said they want a party agenda that is “more centrist” and, thus, much less liberal.

The governors said at a news conference that they intend to become the party’s new “center of gravity,” as Mr. Richardson put it, and will play a central role in charting their party’s future course.

As Yogi Berra once said, it sounds like “deja vu all over again.” The Democratic governors have gone through this drill so many times. When their party loses a majority of elections, they always promise to play a central role, but somehow they get pushed aside in the legislative battles fought by the party’s congressional leaders who are, of course, here in the nation’s capital.

But this time, they say, things are going to be very different. They plan to rebuild the Democratic Governors’ Association into a well-funded, heavily staffed campaign machine that will help elect more governors in the 2005 and 2006 elections.

For starters, they elected Bill Richardson chairman of the DGA, a smart choice because he is not only a centrist, but, as a former U.N. ambassador under President Clinton, he’s the only governor with a deep background in foreign policy.

Mr. Richardson’s sharply different opinions on key issues set him apart from much of his party. “You know, I cut income taxes in my state,” he told me. (I did know that and have written about it, though it’s a side of Mr. Richardson that the Washington news media rarely mentions.)

He didn’t just cut income tax rates in his state, he cut them across the board. While John Kerry and the rest of the Democratic leadership here was condemning President Bush for cutting taxes, particularly for those in the top income brackets, Mr. Richardson was doing the very same thing that Mr. Bush did to help New Mexico’s economy become more competitive with adjoining states whose tax rates were lower.

Mr. Richardson and his gubernatorial colleagues have their work cut out for them. Democrats have not been doing well in the state capitals in the past decade or so. They not only lost their majority among governors in the ‘90s, they lost in the biggest states, including New York, Texas, California and Florida. Especially embarrassing, they lost in some of the most heavily Democratic states in the country, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Maryland. The current score is 21 for the Democrats and 29 for the Republicans.

Governorships are critical to the future of the Democrats because that’s where voters look for their presidents. Democrats have won presidential elections only three times since 1968, and in each case the winner was a governor, and a Southerner, who did it: Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, and Mr. Richardson, who has presidential ambitions of his own, wants Democrats to learn it.

Mr. Richardson’s leadership can’t come too soon, because Democratic leaders here remain confused and bewildered since their devastating losses in November.

Terry McAuliffe, who will soon be replaced as national party chairman, is exhibiting all the symptoms of shell shock. Instead of trying to figure out what his party did wrong, he announced Monday that the Democratic National Committee will begin an investigation into what he says were voting irregularities in Ohio. This despite the fact that 88 Ohio Democratic county chairmen voted to certify the election results.

The new incoming Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, is having his troubles, too. He sparked a furor among party liberals this week when he said on “Meet the Press” that he could support Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the court’s most conservative members, for chief justice.

If a seat opens up on the high court this year, Mr. Bush may have a much easier time getting his nominee confirmed than anyone expects.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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