The President’s annual State of the Union address is coming up. It is one of those rare moments in the political calendar when the networks are willing to interrupt their diet of reality shows for a serious discussion of where the country is or should be going. And, as usual, it will be followed by a Democratic response, this year by Tim Kaine, the newly-minted governor of Virginia, whose principal credential is that he is not currently on anyone’s list for higher office.
But what will he – and the Party – have to say? Do the Democrats have an alternative strategy for running the country? I’ve been listening and I certainly haven’t heard it. Yes, House Minority leader Nancy Pilosi keeps repeating her mantra about the Republican “culture of corruption” on Capitol Hill and yes, the man from 2,000, Al Gore, has been calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the Administration’s domestic wiretapping program… but to little effect.
The search for a Democratic Party program is so desperate, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who would like to be its standard-bearer in 2008, is running a contest on his website asking for “ten words that define the party’s message.” He’s got his own list, including such chestnuts as “meaningful opportunity, personal security and individual responsibility.” Hard to argue with those, but they seem unlikely to mobilize the masses.
The timing for a full-throated Democratic counter-attack to the Republican agenda would seem to be irresistible. The Administration is being battered in the polls on everything from the deficit to the lobbying scandals to its mismanaged execution of the Medicare prescription drug plan. This is an election year, with at least the chance to crack the Republican monopoly in Congress, and yet the Democrats are curiously quiescent.
The reason, I think, is Iraq. Like Senator John Kerry in the 2004 campaign, the party has so far been unable to explain credibly what it would do differently to extricate the U.S. and its soldiers from that quagmire. None of its presumed potential candidates, Hillary Clinton included, can point to a way out of a conflict that has cost more than 2,300 lives and, according to Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, will ultimately drain the treasury of one-to-two trillion dollars. The best the Democrats have managed so far is a resolution in the Senate declaring that the administration’s Iraq strategy needs to change and that 2006 is the year to change it.
That’s a position, not a policy. And until the Democrats find their voice on Iraq, the public may not be prepared to listen to them on much else.