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In search of a winning idea

October 06, 2005

LAST WEEK'S INDICTMENT of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas has elicited predictions that the "Republican revolution" begun in the 1990s has finally come to an end. Gleeful Democrats are suddenly hopeful that they can retake Congress in the 2006 elections, maybe even the presidency in '08.

But a weak GOP does not a strong Democratic Party make. Before the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid order new stationery, they should ask themselves whether their party has any new ideas that can propel it to victory over the next three years.

In 1994, when insurgent Republicans took the reins of power on Capitol Hill, they had a set of ideas and goals that both energized and united them. Two years before, the Democrats had captured the White House with a wonkish candidate who talked about a "third way" of governing. Bill Clinton not only charmed the nation, he preached a new type of Democratic politics that was less reflexively anti-business and more attuned to the importance of personal responsibility.

It is a truism that political parties often benefit from being out of power. No longer weighed down with the burdens of governing, the party's thinkers can toss around creative ways of solving the nation's problems.

Yet over the last five years the Democrats have been anything but introspective. Baited by a highly partisan president, the party's leadership has spent too much time simply reacting to the White House.

In a peculiar dynamic, the hard-charging Republicans have also managed to embolden the left wing of the Democratic Party, which at this point appears to stand more for a visceral disdain of President Bush and war than anything else. This hardly amounts to a coherent political agenda.

In response, a growing number of Democratic donors are acknowledging their party's need to put forth new ideas. This summer, 80 wealthy liberals pledged at least $1 million each to fund a network of pro-Democratic think tanks.

The GOP's mounting troubles are likely to give the Democrats a new hearing from voters in 2006 and 2008. That gives the Democrats just enough time to hunker down and decide what exactly their party stands for.

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