- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

As last weekend’s U.S. Open demonstrated, golf is a game of style and skill; acquiring the first takes money, while the second demands something else entirely. I tried to take up the game several years ago, but quickly discovered I had more success in the pro shop pitching my credit card and taking on the appearance of a golfer than being one on the fairways.

I dressed like Freddie Couples, but my game was scarier than Freddie Kruger.

My links experience reminds me of the Democrats’ current plight. Clearly the party wants to win more elections, and some of their statements suggest they know they need a new appearance, but something’s missing in their DNA to pull it off.

Since the 2004 election, Democratic strategists, lawmakers and party-friendly pundits have debated ways to solve the party’s electoral problem: Attract more “values voters,” more married women with kids, and more middle-class whites, while getting stronger on national security.

But in reality, Democrats confront a much tougher obstacle: how to convince an increasingly homogenized liberal congressional party — the “face” of their party at the national level — to listen and sound more like average Americans and less like left-wing caricatures. Yet signs abound they party may be institutionally and temperamentally incapable of escaping their liberal bunker.

Democratic Leadership Council founder Al From identifies this troubling political calculus in a recent article in Blueprint Magazine called “Simple Math.” Mr. From argues that in the last three presidential elections, the votes for Democratic presidential candidates were about equal to the cumulative number for the party’s congressional candidates. “This convergence of presidential and congressional votes has resulted in a national Democratic vote of about 47 or 48 percent,” Mr. From writes. For the previous 40 years, the share of Democratic congressional vote was usually 10 percent to 15 percent higher than the party’s presidential number.

The missing chunk of votes, according to Mr. From, were primarily moderate-to-conservative Democrats, a loss that altered their congressional caucus in dramatic ways. Powerful conservative Democratic committee chairs and other less liberal lawmakers are no longer there to exert discipline and temper the more extreme views of the caucus.

These problems didn’t develop overnight. Political scientist Nelson Polsby, in his book “How Congress Evolves,” argues the House began its lurch toward homogenized liberalization in 1962 after Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas passed away and was replaced by the less forceful John McCormack. Throughout the 1960s, culminating with a major shakeup after the 1974 post-Watergate election, House Democrats began a slow but steady process of purging conservatives from key committee assignments. “By the end of the decade of the 1970s, the power structure of the House of Representatives had been very substantially remodeled,” Mr. Polsby writes. By the 1990s, the Democratic congressional leadership and the major committees in the House, were all populated by liberal Democrats, loyal to their leadership — and to activist groups.

Mr. Polsby points to the distribution of Southern House seats as another example. In 1958, for example, about 93 percent of the Southern seats were controlled by Democrats — evenly divided between conservative “Dixiecrats” and mainstream Democrats (about seven percent of the southern seats then were held by Republicans). A little over four decades later (1996), Democrats held only about 40 percent of the Southern seats — but the number of Dixiecrats plummeted to less than 10 percent. Republican numbers in the South skyrocketed to 60 percent.

Like a first-time golfer stuck on a U.S. Open course, Democrats lack the discipline and savvy to change direction. It’s this new homogenized mindset that propels their rank-in-file to organize 1960s style anti-war rallies and their “leaders” to use intemperate Bush-bashing language. For example, just in the past week, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Whip Roy Blunt strongly criticized Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for comments made about Iraq on the House floor, and Majority Leader Bill Frist and others called on Democratic Whip Dick Durbin to apologize for remarks made about U.S. treatment of prisoners of war in Guatanamo. While it makes them look good to the narrow liberal fringe, it’s disconcerting to the very groups Democrats need to enlist to dig out of their political bunker. Finding their way back to the wider parts of America’s political fairways may take a few masterstrokes.

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