Things seem fairly bleak for the Republicans. House Majority Leader Tom Delay has been hobbled, at least temporarily, by an indictment. Karl Rove may soon be indicted. The Senate Majority leader faces an investigation of his stock sales. George W. Bush isn't getting any credit for the successes in Iraq, and his nomination of a certain Supreme Court nominee has been troubled from the get-go. Rank-and-file Republicans and movement conservatives are bickering as never before.
Fittingly, many righties are moping like the kids in those old commercials who are rescued from the doldrums by yelling, "Hey Kool Aid!"
One of the painful truths of growing up is that, alas, the Kool Aid Man isn't coming through that brick wall, no matter how parched we are or how plaintively we call him.
The Merlot Man, however, is another story. You may know him as Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic National Committee. Whenever Republicans get depressed and start fingering their pearl-handled revolvers, they can count on Merlot Man to come metaphorically bursting in with a "Yeaaaaggghhh!" to cheer us up.
Why "Merlot Man"? Well, funny story. According to the Washington Post, as Dean has traveled around the country recently giving pep talks to members of his party, he has taken to describing its most loyal base as "Merlot Democrats."
This is a little odd, given that for decades now, Democrats have complained that Republicans unfairly call them names, making them sound more liberal, sissified and elitist than they really are. Years of GOP attacks on "limousine liberals," "ACLU liberals," "San Francisco Democrats" and so forth have finally paid off. That's why you always hear prominent Democrats, when asked if they're liberals, respond, "I don't believe in labels." If pressed, they might boldly say, "If it's liberal to like ice cream, than I am a liberal!"
When Howard Dean took over the Democratic Party, he embraced the work of a guy named George Lakoff, who describes himself as a "metaphor analyst."
Lakoff's first brush with publicity came in 2001 from his ill-considered analysis of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
"Towers are symbols of phallic power," he wrote, "and their collapse reinforces the idea of loss of power." Then Lakoff's metaphor-analysis machine surely started to smoke. "The planes," he continued "penetrating the towers with a plume of heat, and the Pentagon, a vaginal image from the air, penetrated by the plane as missile."
I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking it, too: This is the perfect guy to advise the Democrats in the post-Clinton era!
Lakoff's argument for the Democrats came largely from his book "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate." Framing is PhD-speak for "make bad things sound good." Never mind that this "idea" has been around since the first caveman-politician who ran for Head Guy With Sharp Rock.
Lakoff's tough-love diagnosis for the Democrats: You've been right about everything for 40 years! The only problem was that those mean Republicans kept twisting your words around with clever, poll-tested phrases.
Lakoff told Democrats to take those freeze-dried ideas they've had stored up in the DNC fallout shelter since the 1960s and put 'em in shiny new packaging. Don't call them "trial lawyers," talk about "public protection attorneys." Instead of the downbeat, eat-your-spinach phrase "environmental protection," Democrats should say something spicier like "poison-free communities." Yeah, that's the ticket.
The Dems ate it up, bought the book by the ton, and paid Lakoff to work his magic. Dean called him "one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement."
Clearly, he and Lakoff holed up somewhere and worked tirelessly into the night, clipboards in hand, to come up with precisely the right words to describe Democrats. Now Dean's taking it on the road, revving up Democratic audiences by explaining his Lakoff-influenced plan for taking back America.
"No longer will the Democratic Party allow itself to be defined by the Republican Party," Dean thundered recently at a Nevada confab.
So, after years of denouncing the GOP for unfairly labeling Democrats as effete, coastal liberals out of touch with heartland America, what label does Dean think best describes the Democrats? What cuts to their core? One word: Merlot.
He described the contest as "Merlot Democrats" vs. "Reliable Republicans." Ah, yes, that's a term that will rally the lunch-bucket crowd. That'll put steel in Dean's prediction that the "The South will rise again, and when it does, it will have a 'D' after its name!"
Now, in fairness, "Merlot Democrats" is an analytical label, not a rallying cry. But for those of us who believe in labels, it's a telling one, demonstrating that Democrats remain right where they've been stuck for decades.
And that's why the GOP has cause to cheer. It may have it's problems, but they are the problems of success. The Democrats' problems are the problems of failure. Of course, Dean might call them the "challenges of conviction" or some such - but that's old wine in a new bottle.