By Ben Goddard - 03/09/06 12:00 AM EST
We have a small farm in Rappahanock County, Va., to which we escape on most weekends. In addition to the fascinating and eclectic mix of local residents, weekends attract a lot of “come heres,” as we invaders from the city are called. The combination generally leads to a spirited discussion of politics and world events at some point.
Last weekend, a small group of we ex-pats gathered at a local restaurant and, as usual, began talking politics. One savvy journalist in our group posed an interesting question: “What is the single word that defines what this election will be about?” The consensus was that word is “competence.”
President Bush’s administration’s handling of issues from political corruption to hurricanes to a trigger-happy vice president to the Dubai Ports World deal have been incompetent, to say the least. No matter how you feel about the reasons for going to war in Iraq, Americans have clearly made the judgment that the whole affair has been badly mishandled. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll this week, 80 percent believe Iraq is headed into civil war. The same poll shows that 65 percent don’t believe the Bush administration has a “plan for handling the situation in Iraq.”
Democrats think they see a message in these numbers; they just don’t seem to be sure what it is. Some are convinced the midterm elections should be about an administration that is not competent to run the country. Sitting here eight months out from the election, that seems like a pretty good argument, but much can change in those eight months, including a Bush team that may yet find its footing and demonstrate some capable management of the public’s business.
The problem with counting on the competence argument alone to win the ’06 elections is that most of the candidates on the ballot are in the House or the Senate — and both groups are seen as not doing much better than the president. The same poll that shows people don’t think the president has a clue about Iraq gives Democrats in Congress even lower marks. Fully 70 percent don’t believe Democrats “have a clear plan” either. And it is easy to see how voters come to that conclusion. There is no consistent message from the Democratic leadership on the war, or on much else for that matter.
One faction in Congress thinks the message is simply “we’re not Republicans.” Another group wants a 2006 version of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, so often credited with leading Republicans to victory in 1994.
While I lean toward the view that Democrats need more of a message than “not Republican,” I also think the Contract with America is greatly overrated. That document did not see the light of day until a few weeks before the election, and while a lot of politicos read it, not many voters did. Post-election polls showed that almost no one in the real world new what it contained or even that it existed.
What the Republicans did have in 1994 was a polarizing but charismatic leader in then-Rep. Gingrich (Ga.) and a single-minded devotion to a winning strategy. A competent campaign, in other words.
It is hard to find that on the Democratic side of the aisle this year. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) usually seem to be from different wings of the same party, if not from different parties altogether.
The picture is further muddled by a gaggle of senators jockeying for position to run for president in 2008. Each has their own message and each is trying to distance themselves from the others. It is hard to be consistent in that environment.
While most polls still show Democrats leading Republicans in congressional races by roughly 10 points, they also show that is mostly a statement about voters’ view of Republicans. There is no coherent view of what Democrats stand for.
There is plenty of data on what those issues should be — increasing the minimum wage, fixing the president’s prescription-drug plan, stopping job loss due to outsourcing, improving homeland security and cutting our reliance on fossil fuels. The problem is the Democrats have not yet figured out how to package those ideas in a concise, compelling message.
If Democrat leaders are not competent to do that packaging job, the one word that summarizes what this election is about could turn against them come November. Competence cuts both ways.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Clausen Strategic Advocacy.