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Democrats Now Have a Theme, But It’s Not a Wave-Maker

Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced her Caucus’ theme for the 2004 elections: “New Partnership for America’s Future.” [IMGCAP(1)]

True, the phrase sounds like a recently established leadership PAC or one of those under-the-radar screen 527s rather than a rallying cry that Democrats can use to take over the House of Representatives. But at least it gives Democratic candidates a theme that they can use as a starting point for presenting a party agenda.

In announcing the theme, Pelosi is keeping her promise never to go into another election without a message. (I, for one, continue to believe that the party did have a message in 2002. It just wasn’t strong enough to defeat Republican incumbents or overcome the president’s popularity.)

Still, I can’t help but feel that Democrats haven’t fully committed themselves to a true national message, the way one party or the other has from time to time.

The new Democratic theme is nothing like the GOP’s 1980 “Time for a Change” theme or the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America.” And it is unlikely to have the electoral impact that the Republican contract had.

A decade ago, Republicans offered America a detailed agenda, and they were able to have most of their candidates endorse it. Many Republican House hopefuls traveled to Capitol Hill to sign the contract, and the party portrayed the election as a referendum on the Democrats’ control of government. So far, Democratic candidates haven’t shown that level of commitment to Pelosi’s new agenda.

The GOP also had the resources to put behind the party’s message in 1994, which allowed the party to establish a national contrast with the Democrats, who at the time controlled the House, Senate and the White House (as the Republicans now do).

Again, it’s unlikely that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will spend the necessary resources to “nationalize” the 2004 races. (Wouldn’t it be nice for the DCCC if it had several million dollars worth of soft money it could use to underwrite a national advertising campaign?) More to the point, given the party’s need to win in a variety of districts — from Democratic-leaning open seats to very Republican seats — a single, national message may not sell.

This year’s Democratic message isn’t likely to create a new dynamic. Pelosi’s New Partnership strongly lines up House Democrats behind such controversial issues as prosperity, security and opportunity. (I’m kidding.)

It’s understandable, but still a little odd, that the Democratic Party hasn’t spent much effort trying to encourage the development of a partisan wave.

With polls continuing to show that a plurality (and, in some surveys, a majority) of Americans believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction, and Republicans holding the presidency and majorities (albeit narrow ones) in the House and Senate, the election seems ripe for a partisan message from the Democrats.

A weak job market, months of media frenzy over alleged job “outsourcing,” seniors’ less-than-thrilling response to the administration’s handling of prescription drugs, and daily reports of American causalities in Iraq — all this would seem to provide the Democrats with ammunition.

And while the voters don’t seem as universally angry now as they were in the mid-1990s, they’ve shown some willingness to send a message of change.

Voters in Missouri’s Democratic primary said no to Gov. Bob Holden’s renomination, and both Montana Gov. Judy Martz (R) and Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D) opted against seeking re-election, knowing that voters in their states were ready for change.

In two special elections for the House this year, voters handed Democrats open Republican House seats, although both victorious Democrats did begin with some unique advantages. And in New York, state legislative primaries held earlier this month resulted in a number of defeats for incumbents and “organization” candidates in both parties. Local observers noted some frustration with Albany.

But many of the states and districts the Democrats must contest don’t look ripe for wave-making (they are too Republican and/or conservative), and Democratic doubts about Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s appeal, even when he was leading in the polls, argue against a Democratic strategy aimed at creating a national anti-Republican wave.

For all of their chest pounding, I still get the feeling that Democrats really don’t believe that their time has yet come. Oh, they can win a presidential election and, possibly, one house of Congress, but their confidence is shaky.

Pelosi and her Democratic brethren in the Senate aren’t really proposing a new approach to government, the way Ronald Reagan did in 1980 or the Republicans did in taking on 40 years of Democratic control of the House. If they thought a full-frontal attack on Republican rule would work, they would do it.

Instead, we are left with a “New Partnership.” It has a nice ring, and at least Pelosi is trying to do something. But it’s hardly a call to battle.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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