Where's the Party At?

Howard Dean has officially taken charge of the Democratic Party but it's not clear where he plans to take it. Many observers want to see if he will pull the party left while congressional Democrats keep repeating that the party chairman has no effect on policy. Sen. Joe Biden announced that Dean would have absolutely no "policy role." Dean has told reporters "most of the policy pronouncements" will come from Democratic leaders in Congress.

This approach is a mistake – and it misses a unique opportunity for the party to cultivate new ideas and better define its policy goals.

Instead of stiff-arming Dean away from policy debates, congressional Democrats should leverage his durable popularity with the base to rally support for the Democratic agenda. Meanwhile, Dean must acknowledge the ideological uncertainty within the party. In a letter to supporters, he claimed "there is no crisis of ideology in the Democratic Party, only a crisis of confidence." But the "crisis" of self-doubt stems from enduring questions about where the party stands.

Despite Dean's assertions, the Democratic Party doesn't just need a better message. It needs a new platform. Instead of waiting until '08 to rewrite it, party leaders must start now.

Usually, platforms are hurriedly written under election-year pressure and forgotten. Many are highly forgettable, and the 2004 Democratic Platform is no exception. It is vague and meek. (It was drafted by appointees selected by the Kerry campaign and former party chairman Terry McAuliffe.) In fact, the platform embodies several failures of the Democrats' approach in 2004, including indecision, mixed messages and weak delivery.

For example, the section on Iraq sounds more like a polling memo than foreign policy: "People of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq." The references to gay marriage are confusing. The platform supports "gay and lesbian families in the life of our nation," calls for marriage to be defined by states and then repudiates the Federal Marriage Amendment – all without actually taking a stand on gay marriage itself. And the 39-page platform devotes only one paragraph to protecting a woman's right to choose. If the Democrats do not take the time and detail to defend a core principle in the platform, it's no wonder they're losing ground in public opinion and elections.

Overall, the current platform is hazy on policy and weak on politics. It does not help candidates advance a unified message. It does not appeal to potential voters. It does not even represent Democratic activists.

Yet the Democrats have a lot more to offer. Dean should work with Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the aggressive and talented leaders of the Democrats' midterm campaign committees, to draft a bold, specific and politically-appealing platform this year. This project could build genuine internal consensus, energize Democrats with a clear statement of principals and show voters in 2006 exactly what Democrats stand for – just as the 10-point "Contract with America" did for Republicans in 1994. (The "contract" listed specific legislation and governmental reforms, which Republicans highlighted in the midterm elections that returned them to power in 1994.)

Both established Democratic leaders and grassroots supporters should have input on the new platform. Innovative ideas could be considered without the typical campaign pressures stifling any audacity or creativity. Dean's credibility and empowering style might even bridge the gap between the party's base and its Washington leadership.

There is little doubt that when the next elections roll around, Dean will have raised enough money and Democrats will have fulfilled their role as the opposition party. But if they don't work together now to outline a specific and unified Democratic agenda, they may remain the opposition party for a long time.

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