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The DeLay Indictment, and How Democrats Should Respond

As usual, my inbox was jammed last week with updated “talking points” (that is, spin) provided by an array of Democratic leaders and activists highlighting the GOP’s “culture of corruption.” You really can’t blame Democrats for browbeating Republican leaders to end cronyism and to reform the system. If the shoe were on the other foot, you can bet that Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) would be attacking Democrats from coast to coast. [IMGCAP(1)]

This isn’t really about Republican corruption — after all, we Democrats have had our own share of problems — as much as it is about the arrogance of power and the unwillingness of a majority to fight for the people’s interests, not just the special interests. Thus, Democrats have an opportunity here not to score shallow points, but rather to set forth a positive vision of how they would govern differently.

DeLay was a modern master of amassing and using power for its own sake. Whether insisting that K Street types hire only Republicans and write checks to only Republicans, manipulating the redistricting process in his home state of Texas, or allegedly trying to bribe then-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to change his vote on the Medicare bill, DeLay’s downfall arrived via his own arrogant hand.

He believed that his actions would never be challenged. Well, no one is above the law — and that includes every Member of Congress and all government officials.

If anything makes it crystal clear that the Republican Party has utterly abandoned its principles and run out of ideas other than staying in power, just recall DeLay’s astonishing statement recently that there was “no fat to cut” in the federal budget. This statement was made as tens of thousands of stranded survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are simply trying to get a roof over their heads. What nerve for some lawmakers to balk at the prospect of giving back huge pork-barrel projects, such as recent earmarks in the transportation bill to build a $100 million Alaskan bridge to nowhere. And don’t get me started on cronyism.

So what can Democrats do? One thing is to point out the truth — that Republicans have become intellectually and morally bankrupt. We also can tell the American people what we stand for. We can become a new party with new ideas. What we can’t do is simply stand for “better strategies, independent commissions and an end to the culture of corruption and cronyism.”

Some Democrats and pundits may ask, “Can it work?” Well, this is how the Republicans kicked Democrats out of office after 40 years in power in 1994.

They assailed Democratic leaders daily on the House floor, but in the end, they did more than just whine about “abuse of power” and “scandals by the minute” — they also came up with an agenda late in the electoral season and sold it to the American people. It’s time Democrats do the same, and then some.

Democrats need our own contract with America, and not the kind of shallow, poll-tested exercise in opportunism that theirs was. We need a real platform: for getting our troops out of Iraq and leaving it better than we found it. For energy conservation and independence. For high-quality, affordable health care and prescription-drug coverage. For new ideas to help rebuild the Gulf Coast and to provide the survivors of two catastrophic hurricanes with real relief, not just nickels and dimes.

Since the 2004 presidential election was decided, Democrats have experienced two major problems in coming up with an agenda and a message. First, it’s taken us a good decade to learn how to be a minority party. We’ve been stunned and reactive, fearful of taking bold, giant steps. We’ve also been afraid to stand up to President Bush. Even given his weakened state, we must do more than tell why we oppose the administration’s plans. We have to tell the American people directly what we plan to do differently.

Second, since former President Bill Clinton left office, we’ve lacked a marquee leader. We love Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but it’s tough for Congressional leaders, and the passel of jockeying presidential candidates, to truly serve as a rallying point. It’s time for someone not interested in being the next president of the United States to roll up his or her sleeves and show some spine.

But above all, we Democrats desperately need to stand for something. To this day, most Democrats can recite Clinton’s electoral platform. How many of us could tell you what we stand for today? We have the ideas and the talent. We’re learning how to get on the same page and clearly communicate our ideas on legislation we oppose. Now, we can step forward with new energy to lead America forward.

The time has come for Democrats to tell the American people what we care about. The rest will flow from that, because on issue after issue, the public agrees with us, not with them.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

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