Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- It is getting harder in this hotly contested election year to find Democrats who will talk frankly about their party, its problems and what its agenda should be.

One man who can be counted on to give a candid assessment of the Democrats' prospects is Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff for President Clinton, who is now one of his party's top political advisers and respected elder statesmen.

I spend a lot of time talking to local and state Democratic officials to get a clearer sense of the mood of the country and, in most cases, you get the straight party line filled with anger and rage about the Republicans and little insight into their own party's weaknesses.

Panetta always offers a sober, balanced analysis of both sides of the political equation, and he isn't afraid of lecturing his party when he feels it may be headed in the wrong direction or neglecting the bread-and-butter issues that are most important to rank-and-file voters.

In a recent telephone interview with the low-key former budget director and California congressman, he is blunt about the problems that confront the GOP, but with a hint of sympathy for his longtime rivals -- because his own party has been through many similarly rough periods, too.

"I think we are in one of those cycles in politics where the Republicans in Congress are getting hit on every front and, obviously, the president's polls don't help," Panetta said. "All that, combined with a series of unprecedented crises, from the war in Iraq, gas prices, concerns over the handling of Hurricane Katrina to conservative Republicans expressing great concern [about their party's direction], it's almost as if they can't catch a break.

"The anxiety of the country is there, and people are angry and frustrated and wondering where the country is going," he continued. "In light of that, there isn't any question, in my view, that Democrats would be able to win control of the House and probably capture additional seats in the Senate, though it's going to be much harder to get control of the Senate."

Of course, that's not what the nation's top election forecasters think; none are flatly predicting a change in either house of Congress.

"The 2006 midterm elections are a political analyst's nightmare. The national climate seems to portend big changes, yet race-by-race analyses reveal formidable odds against a Democratic takeover of either the House or the Senate," veteran elections tracker Charlie Cook said in his recent National Journal campaign preview.

What's missing from those generic congressional voter polls, showing Democrats leading Republicans by a dozen points or more, is that only three- or four-dozen seats are truly competitive out of the 435 House seats up for election in November.

Democrats have their best chances in the open seats where members are retiring or running for higher office, but of the 18 open ones, half are in Republican-leaning districts where "Democrats have a remote chance of winning," Cook said.

So this year's election is hardly a done deal by any stretch, especially at this early juncture where, as Panetta wisely pointed out, "an awful lot can happen [to change the whole political environment]. Hopefully not another 9/11, but another crisis could impact on the elections -- perhaps some rapid progress in Iraq. You never know what could change the dynamic."

He is especially worried about the political fallout from a growing anti-incumbent mood that could hit both parties in November. "This could be one of those years that could produce a lot of surprises, where we could see some Democratic incumbents not winning easy seats, and that could be true for Republicans as well," he said.

But Panetta's biggest concern is his party's failure to come up with a clear governing agenda to let people know what they stand for and what they would do, if elected.

Democrats, who have been dillydallying over strategy for the better part of a year, had better come up with "an agenda and a message for voters, and sooner rather than later," he told me.

"They ought to present a very clear vision to the country in four or five areas. People want to know they stand for something. The public is hungry to know what solutions this party is going to present. If they wait too long, they won't have enough time to say what they stand for."

Panetta thinks there is too much anger in Washington on both sides of the aisle and seems to be telling his party that anger is not an agenda: It is a prescription for defeat.

"If the public is angry and frustrated and they want to take it out on somebody, a lot of surprises can happen," he said.

"Both parties have focused too long on winning and not on governing. If the Democrats present another version of the Republican Party, if they fail to help govern the country, I think they would be in trouble two years from now."

Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton, take note.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.