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George W. Bush May Yet Be a Unifier — for Democrats

As the historic race for the Democratic nomination comes to an end sometime over the next two weeks, the conflict between Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) has subsided substantially. There are reports that their donors are making arrangements to work together to help raise funds for the fall campaign. Also, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has called on the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee — on which I serve — to meet on May 31 to help iron out a settlement to seat some delegates from Michigan and Florida, the two states that defied the party’s timing rules.

[IMGCAP(1)]This is good news for the rest of the Democratic Party, especially Congressional candidates anxious to get onto the business of defining the election for the crucial fall campaign. This should allow the presidential primary loser to focus on ending the narrative of the campaign season in ways that help strengthen his or her position within the party while helping downballot candidates pull together a winning coalition for the fall. The Democrats, as tempting as it may be, cannot simply run against George W. Bush’s third term; they will have to come up with a coherent message that explains the new direction they will take the country come January 2009.

While the Democrats reach out with olive branches to heal primary wounds incurred during this very unconventional political season, the Republicans seem to be in disarray. I can tell you from my own experience that the GOP’s internal struggles are not new in American politics. However, theirs are erupting at a time when the Republican Party desperately needs to start winning the hearts and votes of independent swing voters, the most crucial voting bloc in American politics.

As one leading Democratic strategist shared with me over the weekend: “You know the feeling you get when you slip on the ice? You can see yourself falling, and even before you hit the sidewalk, you know there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” That is 1994 all over again — a year in which Democrats had it all, clung to the old playbook, and took a beating at the ballot box.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) was correct when he told GOP leaders and strategists in a memo recently: “Members instinctively understand that the Republican brand is in the trash can. I’ve often observed that if we were dog food, they would take us off the shelf.” If Republicans, who continue to view President Bush as the party’s alpha dog, don’t figure out soon that they need a new identity separate from the leader of the free world, they are doomed for more losses this fall.

Other than raising money and perhaps stoking the ever-shrinking GOP base, why would anyone want Bush campaigning in their districts? This is not an issue of “branding”; hiring a new advertising firm will not help sell the GOP product they’re peddling. Independents and so-called Reagan Democrats will not buy into a party that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into backing a raise in the minimum wage and a plan to help homeowners keep their property.

In a world of mortgage foreclosures, $4-a-gallon gas, a poisoned environment, a weakened dollar and a world that no longer takes direction from the United States, the Republicans have nothing to say. Therefore, Democrats must anticipate them relying on lies, smears, and, worse, guilt by association. The old slash-and-burn playbook of divisiveness, once heralded by the Beltway establishment as politics’ modern-day equivalent of Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” will be dusted off and put into play.

Some recent polling suggests that GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has a 16-point advantage over Congressional Republicans because his brand seems better. Yes, McCain has been a maverick, but he has been with the president more than 90 percent of the time. McCain’s ties to Bush may become a serious enough liability to threaten the entire party’s efforts to distance itself from Washington, D.C., where Republicans, in fact, have led the charge: running up huge budget and trade deficits, and giving tax breaks to special interests that understood their pay-to-play rules.

McCain’s problems — as evidenced by the campaign’s effort to clean house of people with ties to foreign governments and special interests — are emblematic of two strategic errors he’s made in the campaign. While Obama and Clinton were fighting for delegates and votes, McCain needed to develop a strong economic message, and he needed to complete the separation from Bush, especially on the war. Instead, McCain set off to visit obscure places on a totally unnecessary biography tour. At age 71, after a generation in politics and two presidential campaigns, if you think people don’t know who you are, you are in deep water.

Obama and Clinton have the message right: McCain is a fine patriot, but the country does not need a third Bush term. More of the same is not what voters want. As former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) stated in a recent column, “real change” is the only thing to avert a GOP disaster this fall.

Last week, Bush used a speech before the Israeli Knesset to criticize Obama for wanting to meet with our nation’s enemies. If he’s willing to pull Obama up to the presidential level to have a debate, what does it do? It diminishes McCain while it raises Obama’s stature, unifying the Democrats (which we desperately need), pushing anti-Bush independents in the Democrats’ direction, and effectively cutting McCain out of the dialogue.

Mr. President, give us more. Bring it on, George! After all these years of splitting the country and the two political parties over unnecessary ideological divisions, we might all come together before you leave Washington next January. Give us more. Americans are begging for a new direction and someone who can help us break old habits that no longer work for us all.

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

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