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Forget Consultants -- the Democrats Need a Speech Therapist

It's not what they say that's annoying, it's how they say it.

November 28, 2002|Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent is a columnist in Yardley, Pa.

Conventional wisdom says that Democrats lost this month's elections because they had no ideas. They offered no alternative to the Bush agenda, settling instead for disparaging it.

This diagnosis makes some sense. Who, after all, can vote for a negation? But it isn't the whole story.

Democrats didn't really lose the midterm elections because they had no ideas. They lost them for the same reason they lost the presidency in 2000: They have a tone problem.

Nothing could have made this clearer than the onslaught return of Al Gore, who blanketed the media like a pall last week on a tour promoting his new book.

So inauspicious was the former vice president's showing that a Los Angeles Times poll revealed that even Democratic Party insiders had little enthusiasm for a Gore bid in 2004.

Why such slim support? Again, common wisdom says that Gore, though he presents himself as a remade man, is still too stiff a customer to win, still too script-dependent and -- on key issues like the war in Iraq -- too fickle and self-contradictory to persuade voters that he stands for anything. It's clear to all and sundry that his touted new insouciance is just a put-on.

Though it is true that Gore is too circumspect to be natural and not strong enough on the issues to show conviction, these aren't the killer ingredients. The real problem with shallow Al is still what it has always been: his condescending, supercilious, sanctimonious, officious, overbearing tone of voice. The man is convinced he's better than the rest of us, and he's no good at hiding it. No matter how hard he tries, he sounds like a middle-school principal doling out detention slips. Is it any wonder he didn't get elected?

It wasn't his policies that alienated voters in 2000. It was the thought of having to listen to that righteous, reprimanding drone for the next four years. Nobody likes to be lectured. Which is probably why the electorate turned on Democrats en masse this season.

The wormwood of Gore's defeat embittered and ultimately poisoned every motion the party made. Democrats vulgarized the death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, for example, when they allowed liberal kooks to enshroud it in conspiracy theory and turned the very public memorial service into a wild-eyed party congress. Goodwill curdled with angry speechifying.

Then, of course, there was the election eve debate in which substitute candidate Walter Mondale, impotent and cantankerous as King Lear, cast his dotty aspersions at Republican challenger Norm Coleman. A beacon of his party's moral superiority complex, Mondale sank that eminently winnable race in one outing with the dead weight of his leaden indignation.

Sadly, Democrats' sour mood has only worsened since Nov. 5. Blame is the order of the day, and it is being taken to absurd lengths. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told reporters that he held conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh in part responsible for driving "an emotional movement" among listeners who are then "energized to go out and hurt somebody."

The Democrats already look bad because they lost again when they shouldn't have. Now Daschle's outburst and other such obvious displays of feckless rancor are only making them look worse, like sore losers kicking the dog.

If the Democrats are going to have a chance in 2004, they're going to have to make a serious attitude adjustment because so long as they present themselves as the wronged party, they will never helm the winning party, no matter what their ideas.

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