Do the Democrats Have a Plan?

There’s an old saying that you can’t beat something with nothing. The Democratic leadership has apparently realized that but is having a wee bit of trouble coming up with “something.”

WaPo fronts a story by Shailagh Murray and Charles Babington headlined “Democrats Struggle To Seize Opportunity” and subtitled “Amid GOP Troubles, No Unified Message.”

News about GOP political corruption, inept hurricane response and chaos in Iraq has lifted Democrats’ hopes of winning control of Congress this fall. But seizing the opportunity has not been easy, as they found when they tried to unveil an agenda of their own.

Democratic leaders had set a goal of issuing their legislative manifesto by November 2005 to give voters a full year to digest their proposals. But some Democrats protested that the release date was too early, so they put it off until January. The new date slipped twice again, and now House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) says the document will be unveiled in “a matter of weeks.”

The problem is beyond simple timing and strategy.

There is no agreement on whether to try to nationalize the congressional campaign with a blueprint or “contract” with voters, as the Republicans did successfully in 1994, or to keep the races more local in tone. And the party is still divided over the war in Iraq: Some Democrats, including Pelosi, call for a phased withdrawal; many others back a longer-term military and economic commitment.

It gets better:

Even the party’s five-word 2006 motto has preoccupied congressional Democrats for months. “We had meetings where senators offered suggestions,” Reid said. “We had focus groups. We worked hard on that. . . . It’s a long, slow, arduous process.”

That slogan — “Together, America Can Do Better” — was revived from the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry. It was the last line of Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s response to President Bush’s State of the Union address, and Reid, Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean have used it in speeches. But there is an effort afoot to drop the word “together.” It tests well in focus groups and audiences, Democratic sources said, but it makes the syntax incorrect.

Governors privately scoff at the slogan. They also say the message coming from congressional leaders has been too relentlessly negative. “They want to coordinate. They want to collaborate. That’s all good,” said one Democratic governor who declined to be identified in order to talk candidly about a closed-door meeting. “The question is: Coordinate or collaborate on what? People need to know not just what we’re against but what we’re for. That’s the kind of message the governors are interested in developing at the national level.”

Perhaps the Democrats should try dressing in more Earth tones?

E.J. Dionne is having none of this, however. He contends that, “The Democrats’ real problem is that they have failed to show how their critique of the Republican status quo is the essential first step toward the alternative program they will owe the voters in the presidential year of 2008.”

Of course, if you don’t have any idea what you stand for as a party, beyond “Bush sucks,” it’s hard to formulate much of a response.

Chris Bowers also thinks the critique is off base, pointing to a new Gallup poll which finds “More than half of registered voters (53%) favor the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House in their district; only 39% favor the Republican.” Bowers asks, “[H]ow large does our lead in the polls have to be before we are ‘seizing the opportunity?’ 20 points? 40?”

The problem is that the Gallup press release points out that,

This is not the first election since the Republican Party won majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 that the Democrats have held a double-digit lead on this important indicator of electoral strength, but it is fairly rare. Throughout much of 1996 and in a couple of polls in 1998, the Democrats enjoyed a 10- to 13-point lead. However, the norm has been for the Republicans to trail the Democrats by only about five points among all registered voters.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to turn out to vote, particularly in midterm elections. As a result, the Republican Party has repeatedly won a majority of seats in Congress since 1994, while typically trailing the Democrats by a few points in pre-election surveys among all registered voters. In the past two midterm elections (1998 and 2002), Republicans trailed the Democrats among registered voters by nine points and five points respectively in Gallup’s final pre-election polls.

Moreover, this poll is of registered voters not likely voters. Republicans usually score several points higher among the latter, which more closely correlates to actual turnout.

The bottom line remains that, as Tip O’Neil famously counseled, all politics is local. There is, as Joe Trippi mentioned in conversation last night, an anti-incumbent sentiment that should hurt Republicans more than Democrats given the proportions in both Houses. Still, races will mostly depend on the dynamics of each of the 435 congressional districts and 33 states in play this year.

Virtually no one thinks the GOP could lose the Senate but the Republicans could conceivably lose control of the House. One could argue that they deserve to, given their profligate spending and arrogant flouting of their alleged principles. But this is an off-year election, which tends to mean low turnout, which tends to be good for Republicans since casual voters tend to come from Democratic demographics. More importantly, though, gerrymandering has rigged the system so that very few seats are actually in play. The Democrats have to virtually run the table on those seats to take the House back. My guess is that they won’t do that.

FILED UNDER: 2006 Election, Congress, Public Opinion Polls, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    Their plan is to counter the President. When G.W. is out of office, not only will they have no plan, they will have nothing to say. They have already become irrelevant.

  2. Mark says:

    I suggest the Democrats just gor for broke and campaign on the issue its most vocal activists love to rant about: impeachment.

    Why not? If you support impeaching the president, vote for the Democrat. If not, vote for the Republican. Simple and honest!

  3. Brian says:

    It’s easy to say that Democrats don’t have any ideas, but that isn’t true. The problem is a lack of unifying plan. But I’d be pretty surprised if there wasn’t one soon. For a preview, I’d look to the bills Harry Reid planned to bring up to delay business in the Senate during the filibuster fight.

  4. Tano says:

    I don’t think it fair to say that no one thinks the GOP COULD lose the Senate. Most don’t think it will happen, but it certainly could. GOP gain-possibilities (MN, NJ, MD) seem not be getting much traction. Dem gain-possibilities seem pretty strong in 3-4 states, with 6 gains at the edge – not highly likely, but certainly possible.

  5. NoZe says:

    But this is also the sixth year of an eight year presidency, when the president’s party generally does even more poorly than they do in other mid-term elections (i.e., 1958, 1966, 1974, 1986). It didn’t happen in 1998, arguably because Gingrich and the GOP misplayed the Lewinsky scandal…hopefully the Democrats won’t mishandle this opportunity as well!

    And wasn’t the GOP message in 1994 essentially “Clinton Sucks”? And don’t tell me it was about the “Contract With America”…every item in the contract was chosen based on polling data that showed they were popular with large majorities of the public. That’s just a very large focus group!

  6. Christopher says:

    LOL! NoZe you are a typical liberal! The contract with America WAS the reason republicans won! Americans wanted it and we got it done. Yes yes we blinked one to many times but oh well. The best thing we did was pull Clinton to the middle. Really, you can’t tell the diff between the first Bush and Clinton. Maybe that’s why they are such good buddies.

    Maybe D’s should try the same thing. Hmmm…what wold they put in their contract: higher taxes, America’s head in the sand, placate terrorists, get rid of free trade, and George Clooney as white house spokesman. Yea, that’s the ticket! Go for it!

    By the way, “Clinton’s” economic recovery began at the end of the first Bush presidency, and the second Bush inherited a recession from Clinton. So much for his accomplishments.

  7. ICallMasICM says:

    The Dems do have plans they just don’t want to spill their plans for surrendering to terrorists and sending taxes to the stratosphere until after the elections.

  8. Herb says:

    Yes Indeed, the Democrats do have a plan and it goes like this.

    Rant, Rave, complain and tell everyone the Republicans are spying on them via the NSA, then get everyone all worked up and try to get their vote in November. All this at the expense of revealing Classified Secrets.

    Lead a “Get the troops out of Iraq” campaign at the expense and endangerment of the troops, then try to get a few votes in November for being “Peacemakers”

    Employ people like Cindy Sheehan and John Murtha to lead campaigns to “prove Bush Lied and wrongfully led us into war.

    Use every “dirty trick” and some that no one has heard of yet to sway voters to outright lies, mis-representations and false accusations to gain a few votes from those who don’t use their heads except to don their ball caps on.

    Oh yes, the Democrats have a plan, but it is based entirely on liberal extremist thoughts, ideas and usual dishonesty and hypocritical philosophy

  9. anjin-san says:

    The Democrats do have a real problem coming up with a coherent message and a decent candidate to carry it forward. Hopefully someone will step up. With the extent of the damage done to our country by the Bush admin, there is a great deal of work to be done.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Right bird, what does Bush have? Spend and spend and spend. Spend more. Give tax cuts to billionaires. Crawl to the Communist Chinese for $$$ to cover the deficit. You must be very proud.

  11. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Anjin, it was Clinton who sold out to the Chinese. Tax revenues are higher now than before the tax cut. Once again, you liars on the left wish to blame Bush when all that has haapened is because for 8 years we had government by poll. When are you people ever going to get honest?

  12. anjin-san says:

    Right Jack, Guess you did not notice those SURPLUSES under Clinton. He was not the one who had to go crawling to China to cover red ink.

    Do you deny we now have a historically high deficit? Are you that out of touch with reality?

  13. Christopher says:

    Anjin-san, we do not have a historically high deficit. Check your numbers. Or can you do math?

    Also, what do you mean by crawling to the Chinese for the deficit?

    All you non-economists liberals need to understand that we finance the deficit by selling bonds. Anyone can buy them. Everyone knows that America is the strongest economy in the world so the bonds have global appeal and sell easily. If we can’t sell all that we need, we just raise the interest rate and make them more appealing. True that costs us more but what the heck. Foreign govt.’s or people who buy our bonds have no hold over us. To think that is to be a moron.

  14. RGB says:

    Whadda you mean, the Dems don’t have plans?

    Kerry told us he had a plan for most everything he was asked about, even things he wasn’t, and he was certainly a Democrat.

    Only thing is, I never heard of anybody who actually SAW any of these plans.

    And there is the problem.

    If we could only get these (no doubt) excellent plans made public, it would help fix everything that now needs fixing, and give the Democrats the ability to say they have had great plans all along.

    That would be a real plus for the Dems in the next election.

  15. anjin-san says:


    Show us a time we had more red ink then under Bush.

  16. Ron says:

    Show us a time we had more red ink then under Bush.
    1948 or so. Debt was 120% of GDP, currently about 70%; very close to 1996.


  17. Christopher says:

    Thanks, Paul.

    So anjin-san, I’m not sure what they teach you in those Chinese schools, but here is a lesson:

    Lets say I had debt 25 years ago of $100,000, and today I have debt of $110,000. Did I have more debt 25 years ago or today?

    Granted, this is a lesson lost on many Americans, so it is something liberals play up regularly every election cycle, but that’s OK-we keep winning elections! LOL!!!

  18. Christopher says:

    sorry, I meant to say: Thanks, Ron.

  19. Jim says:

    Here is the problem: there are two primary issues in the United States (other issues are important but haven’t resonated with voters):

    1) Iraq
    2) The War on Terrorism

    The problem with Democrats is that they haven’t decided upon a plan for Iraq…half of then want to immediately withdraq and be vocal about it while the other wants to withdraq but hide that fact.

  20. Thrill says:

    I love this! Air America may be off-line at the beginning of April. You liberals want to get votes? You can’t even sell your message in New York City of all places! It’s time for you to give up.

  21. anjin-san says:

    So you can tweak the numbers based on the much smaller GDP of 1948 and throw in the cost of paying off a war in which someone actually attacked us. Not all that impressive an argument.

    As for the coming elections, by all means, keep laughing. Bush’s numbers are lower then the mercury in Alaska, and Republicans are distancing them from him as fast as they can. So, don’t think, and be arrogant. It’s worked for Bush, given him the sucessful administration he has today. Even Fox news is saying he is rapidly sinking in territory last explored by President Carter. Yuck it up, dude.

  22. floyd says:

    hearing the phrase “the democrats have a plan”is like hearing the phrase “the baby has a hammer!”

  23. G A Phillips says:

    Wow I missed a good one, and no!

  24. anjin-san says:


    Speaking of honest, I am still waiting for you to provide a link to the AP “retraction” of the Bush warned about Katrina story you claim exists…. waiting… waiting…

  25. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘The problem with Democrats is that they havenâ??t decided upon a plan for Iraq’

    Sure they do but they don’t want us to surrender until after the elections.

  26. Herb says:

    Anjin San is like some nagging female, he dwells on everything in the psat to get a point across and never looks at whats going on now nor cares about the furure.

  27. Ron says:

    Anjin San
    Not all that impressive an argument.
    It wasn’t really an argument. You asked, I answered. If you didn’t ask the right question, it’s not my fault.

  28. anjin-san says:


    Most folks know it is easy to tweak and skew economic data. The total dollar figure of the deficit is vastly higher then it was in 1948. I can choose to leave GDP out of the equation entirely.

    I can see why you like Bushland where everything is black and white and if you say you are right, you are.