Emanuel maintains that the claim is a shopworn Republican canard—although poll after poll shows that voters overwhelmingly believe it to be true. But when I ask if the Democrats’ forthcoming contract will elucidate the matter, his response is deeply depressing. “When is our big branding opportunity? It’s during a presidential election,” he says, as we stand on a street corner outside the Longworth building. “You’re setting up a task that I’m not going under any circumstances to achieve from the congressional wing of the minority party in a midterm election. It’s not possible.” Emanuel throws up his hands. “If you say to me, ‘Rahm, people still don’t know who we are,’ I say, ‘Yeah, for fucking good reason.’ We haven’t sold it enough in the past, and it’s not going to happen in 2006 to the significance we need.”
“If you say to me, ‘Rahm, people still don’t know who we are,’ I say, ‘Yeah, for good reason.’ We haven’t sold it enough.”
Gingrich, of course, demonstrated that “branding” could indeed take place in the years between presidential elections. More to the point, in the absence of an overriding governing philosophy (or ideology, if you prefer), any Democratic agenda will be prone to look like little more than a laundry list of programs. And that, I fear, is what the Democratic contract may resemble. As various Democrats rattle off its putative provisions, there are echoes of warmed-over Clintonism. (Emanuel does his part to further this impression by referring to the agenda at times as “Re-putting people first.”) And while warmed- over Clintonism is infinitely preferable to the Republican reign of neglect and incompetence in virtually every policy realm, it may also serve as a too-ripe target for GOP charges of tax-and-spend.
Then there’s the glaring omission from all discussion of a Democratic contract: Iraq. At a moment when every poll shows that the war and its costs, in lives and treasure, are on the mind of every sentient being in the country—and have become a giant albatross around the neck of the president and his party—to leave Iraq out of the Democrats’ foundational campaign document seems bizarre. The obvious explanation is that there is no consensus on the matter in the party, although Emanuel maintains that the differences that exist are small and narrowing. “What’s happened in the last three weeks is that there’s now two wings of the party,” he says. “Get out now and get out in two years.”
Emanuel’s friend Bruce Reed, for one, disagrees, saying he thinks that setting a certain date for withdrawal from Iraq is a flawed idea. Moreover, he points to the sort of conversation the party should be having about national security. “Democrats need to broaden the debate to show how we would win the war on terror,” he says. “There’s no end to how much you can critique the Bush administration for how it’s handled Iraq. But Americans are pragmatic: They want to look forward; they want to know what you’re going to do. The risk for Democrats is that we’ll define ourselves as the antiwar party in the war on terror—and fall back into the trap where we were defined as weak in the seventies and eighties. We should be talking about what’s America’s plan for after Iraq. How do we define a progressive internationalism?”
To have that kind of conversation in preparation for 2006 would require congressional leaders who are decidedly more like Gingrich (before he lost his mind, that is). Hence another reason why the Democratic contract may prove less galvanizing than the Republican one before it. “In 1994, Newt was the leader; he was the man,” Luntz points out. “But the Democrats have no leader, at least in the sense of a visionary. What they have are tacticians, like Harry Reid, and screamers, like Nancy Pelosi. And that may be their undoing.”
Given all this, it’s not surprising that many Republicans—even with the scare put into them by last Tuesday’s elections—seem less than terrified by what the Democrats appear to be planning. As Speaker Dennis Hastert was quoted in the New York Times as telling House Republicans, “Even today, as tough as things seem, it is much better to be us than them.”
Democrats can take some comfort in knowing that Republicans were similarly belittled in the fall of 1993. Emanuel points out that the Democratic contract remains a work in progress—and that Republicans waited until late September 1994 to roll out the original. Still, Democrats should do whatever is necessary to get their act together, for the sort of opportunity presented them now is something rare and special. When a president insists on digging himself and his party into an ever-deeper hole, you don’t want to miss the chance to bury them.