Fear of losing …

Americans, overwhelmingly, see Democrats' failure to articulate a coherent set of messages as a sign of weakness.

It's a legitimate criticism, but one that puts the cart before the horse: Democrats' fear of losing, rather than passionate belief in advancing a progressive agenda, is what makes their positions so muddled and tentative in the first place.

Last week I wrote about the Maryland Senate race, a race in which Congressman Ben Cardin's supporters have effectively marginalized the campaign of Kweisi Mfume by saying he can't win in the general. At this point, that narrative can kill any Dem in a primary fight -- look at what it did to Howard Dean's campaign (I know, it was one among many factors, but still).

That comes froma deadly fear of losing any more ground to the right. Dems have been beaten up for years at the ballot, while scoring well on the issues that matter most to Americans in poll after poll. It's traumatized many of them; they're terrified of losing those last blue islands in the bright red electoral map, and that's led too many of them to take a much more tentative approach to politics than those of us in the grass-roots are looking for. Hence, the idea that the Democratic coalition is essentially schizophrenic: a pro-business elite pushed from the left by its foaming-at-the-mouth lefty base.

But that simplifies the real conflict within the left. As many others have noted, our differences aren't as much ideological -- although differences in ideology exist -- but tactical. Do you stand up for a set of progressive values and passionately oppose the right's agenda -- and let the chips fall where they may -- or do you "triangulate," and come up with ways to peel off those lower-income red-state voters?

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