Hope Still On the Way for Democrats, a Plan Also Yet to Arrive

Mary Katharine Ham

7/24/2006 12:00:00 AM - Mary Katharine Ham

I was in my hometown this weekend, a little deep-blue enclave in an otherwise healthily red state. Scattered throughout my neighborhood, nestled in well-groomed hydrangea bushes and under blooming crepe myrtles stand a handful of Kerry-Edwards campaign signs.

This weekend, they sweltered in the Carolina sun and dripped in a summer downpour, feebly whispering about a “stronger America” and “hope on the way” to many a passer-by who was more likely admiring the pink carpet the rain had shaken from the trees than the Kerry campaign’s two-year-old promises.

On a downtown corner, a handful of folks sweated under the dogwood trees, unable to escape the hot yellow glare of sun on white concrete. The tiny crowd of activists was anything but active, milling around with pale, worn poster boards, feebly proclaiming Israel’s “occupation” of various surrounding countries, America’s “occupation” of Iraq, and George Bush’s “occupation” of the White House, among other grievances.

A lot of folks are saying this could be the Democrats’ 1994, that Republicans could lose both the House and Senate. Some of the evidence is there, in low poll numbers for the president and tight races for Republican incumbents that should have been much looser.

But I can’t shake the thought that, in my hometown, in our little blue neighborhood, it looks a heck of a lot like 2004, minus the enthusiasm. The anti-Bush anger is still here, and it flares up occasionally, but it’s usually simmering in a sort of tepid resentment stew. The activists mill instead of march, and they’ve added no new calls to action to their Sharpie-penned repertoire.

Yes, poll numbers are down and races are tight, but the folks around here are offering nothing in the way of a call for reform. In order to be a fiery reform party, the Democrats must have both fire and some kind of form. They seem to have neither.

But maybe it’s just the liberals around here. Maybe they’re just emotionally exhausted after four years of thankless protest against the “selected” President. Maybe the national party will pick up the slack.

That’s what I was expecting when I read the re-cap of the Webb-Allen debate, which happened in Hot Springs, Virginia on Saturday. Republican Sen. George Allen is a cowboy-booted former Southern governor who is pro-tax cuts, pro-Iraq war, and pro-“Virginia values.”

James Webb is a former Navy secretary and Marine who bemoans the many differences between George Bush and his former boss, Ronald Reagan. Those differences caused the former Reagan Republican to become a Reagan Democrat not too long ago, so he could face Allen in this ’06 Senate race.

Despite Allen’s immense fundraising advantage, it looks like a race in which a tough-talking moderate Democrat could put up a fight in a state where tough-talking moderate Democrats have had a lock on the governorship for the last two terms. From afar, the contest looks like George Bush vs. a more moderate, muscular John Kerry. Exactly what the Dems need, right?

I went into the debate write-up expecting some smart talk from Webb, perhaps an early signal that the Democrats were going to start capitalizing on Republican woes with Democrat ideas.

Instead, I found that Webb wears combat boots instead of delivering a limp salute. He peppers his calls for withdrawal from Iraq with respectful references to the leadership of Ronald Reagan.

But all in all, Webb’s part of the debate sounded a heck of a lot like Kerry’s infamous “I have a plan” debate of ‘04.

"I would like to ask the people of Virginia, 'Is the country better off than it was six years ago' " when Allen was elected to the Senate? Webb asked. "Are we more respected around the world? Is our economy truly fairer to all Americans? Is your job secure? . . . I would like to offer a fresh set of eyes to the problems that face us."

A fresh set of ideas might work better. Instead, while Allen offered a plan to establish permanent military bases in Iraq, Webb said troops could be out of the country in two years, but didn’t say how.

“I have a plan…”

Webb said we should raise the federal minimum wage without referencing the economic downside to such a move (mostly for the low-income workers it’s meant to benefit). Allen suggested we should raise it only in conjunction with tax relief for small businesses that would otherwise be hampered by the extra cost.

“Wait until you hear my plan…”

Allen pointed to health savings accounts as a way to lower the number of Americans who are uninsured. Webb cited the need for a greater federal effort on health care.

“Now, if you’d just listen to my plan…”

To his credit, Webb offered the idea of punishing corporations who hire illegal immigrants as a way to assuage the problem, and mentioned extending affirmative action programs to poor whites. There’s the more muscular, moderate side of this Democrat.

Those ideas don’t promise to be the kind that will get the exhausted lefty activists I know up and writing new signage. They’re more likely to leave them huffing at home in a Kos-induced funk. But those are exactly the ideas Webb needs to be trumpeting to offer a real alternative to Allen.

Republicans are not safe. But the “I have a plan” approach didn’t work in ’04, and the party leaders have nothing much to bolster it with, unless you count the whopping 10-page “Real Security Plan” they unveiled in March.

Conservative activists should be motivated in ’06 by the fact that Republicans could very well go down in defeat to a reform party with no real reforms to offer, which would be a dangerous defeat for the country. As for liberal activists, the hope and the plan better get here fast, because I don’t think those lonely Kerry-Edwards signs were made to shiver through another cold November.