Friday, September 30, 2005

A number of analysts and Democratic strategists say Democrats have opportunities but face problems even more fundamental than President Bush’s declining poll numbers and the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Mr. Bush is running through a second-term soft patch in his presidency as a result of Iraq, rising gas prices and dissatisfaction with the economy, but some analysts say this will be only transitory if Democrats can’t produce a well-defined agenda of their own, promoted by leaders of national heft and stature.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California yesterday made full use of the DeLay indictment, saying of Republicans that “I don’t think some of them know right from wrong. And I think that I’ve said it for a long time that there is an ethical cloud over this Capitol.”

At her press conference yesterday, she repeatedly used the phrase “culture of corruption” and called the indictment merely “the latest example” of cronyism and “not surprising” since, she said, the Republicans are the “handmaiden” of special interests.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat, added a similar note, saying that “the criminal indictment of Tom DeLay is the first chink in the armor of corruption that has so clouded, consumed and controlled the Republican majority over the past few years.”

But independent and Democratic pollsters have been saying all summer that while job approval polls for Mr. Bush and the Republican Congress have fallen sharply, the Democrats haven’t made any voter approval gains, either.

A recent Democracy Corps poll, conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, found voter “feelings about Democrats are at a 2.5-year low.” Only 48 percent of voters said they would vote Democratic in 2006, virtually identical to voters’ preferences in 2004, he said.

Mr. Greenberg and other Democratic campaign strategists have complained for months that their party’s leaders, Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and their leading presidential contenders have been unable to reach a unifying party consensus on a campaign agenda.

After crunching exhaustive voter preference numbers, Mr. Greenberg is telling party leaders that the present “Democratic margin reflects Republican slippage but no subsequent gains for Democrats, who have not yet defined themselves or what changes they would bring.”

Al From, founder and chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council tells reporters that his party has a chance to make gains in next year’s midterm elections, but warns “you can only get so far attacking the other guy, no matter how bad he is.”

If Democrats are to win back the presidency in 2008, they will need a positive agenda, he says, and so far they haven’t produced one.

The DLC has sought Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who leads all of her potential Democratic rivals in the party’s presidential preference polls, to produce a party agenda before the end of the year for a test run in the 2006 elections.

At her conference yesterday, Mrs. Pelosi tried to use the “culture of corruption” she said Mr. DeLay represents to argue for Democratic policy agendas, saying she hoped “some level of shame would set in on the Republicans” as a result.

“This culture of corruption is at the expense of the American people,” she said, blaming Republicans for hurricane-relief woes, high gas prices, and high prescription-drug costs. “Republicans will go to any length, I think they have proven, to benefit their cronies, again, at the expense of the American people.”

Meantime, Democratic-leaning analysts and party strategists have become increasingly critical of another structural problem undermining the Democrats’ chances in 2008: a weak bench among its leadership, especially its latest crop of presidential contenders.

“Democrats are at the moment leaderless. There are few Democrats who command enough attention to make the party’s case to the country,” political analyst Ryan Lizza writes in the New Republic magazine, which generally reflects Democratic sentiment.

“Much of the GOP’s post-September 11 success, especially the victories in the 2002 midterm elections, were a direct result of Bush’s popularity and his cross-country stumping for Republican candidates. There is no similar figure to energize the Democratic Party.”

Independent election pollster John Zogby is even harsher in his assessment of the Democrats’ emerging presidential lineup.

“Today Democrats find themselves in a situation where they don’t have truly national leaders. Hillary is an exception but she is also a lightning rod,” Mr. Zogby said yesterday.

“But after [Sen. Edward M.] Kennedy and [Sen. Robert C.] Byrd, there really are no Senate giants on the Democratic side with immediately respectable names that can heal both sides of the party. They’re ultra-partisans.”

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