The Democrats' New Consultant: Polonius
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by Michael Winship
There's nothing like dispensing advice to others, especially it it's cautionary wisdom you seldom heed yourself. Look at old Polonius in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," a veritable geyser of a geezer when it comes to spouting such familiar maxims as, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."
(With a deficit of $371 billion, more than half of which is owed to overseas concerns, and the debt ceiling about to be raised to nine TRILLION dollars, the White House might want to ponder that one a tad more intently.)
Polonius tells his son, Laertes, "Give thy thoughts no tongue" and "Give
every man thy ear, but few thy voice." Then, not taking his own advice,
Polonius speaks imprudently from behind a tapestry and winds up taking a shiv
through the arras. Hamlet mistakes Polonius for his uncle, the king, and kills
him. So it goes.
In my brief political career, working for various failed candidates, I managed to pick up a lot of worthwhile advice, much of which went disregarded. An upstate New York Democratic county chairman told me, "Remember, when two people agree on everything, one of 'em ain't thinkin'." Words to live by. And when I asked for counsel from the late John Bailey, a legendary political kingmaker who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he took the cigar out of his mouth long enough to say, "Yeah, kid. Keep your mouth shut."
You can see how well that worked out.
Another truism I remember being told is that as far as November elections go, the public doesn't pay much attention until after the World Series and the Jewish high holidays. This year, at least so far, the Democrats seem to be counting on that still being the case. They're flailing about for a coherent national message. As the New
York Times reported Monday, "While Democrats have no shortage of criticism to offer, they have so far not introduced a strategy for governing along the lines of the Republican Party's Contract With America, the 1994 initiative that some Democrats hold up as their model for this year's elections."
Democrats note that the GOP didn't unveil the "Contract" until the final weeks of the '94 campaign and insist they'll have their act together by summer.
That may be too late. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in late January
indicated that some 80% of the public already is keenly interested in the midterm
elections. According to Republican pollster Bill McInturff, that's "essentially
the number we had in October of the last three off-year elections... [We're in
a "period where the public is unusually attuned to politics." Iraq, health
care and gas prices, McInturff said, are "capturing people's interest and making
them pay attention."
In other words, Dems should strike now, while the iron is hot. Rather than wait until summer, content with attacking Republican ineptitude and rascality -- as pleasing a pastime as that may be -- the party needs to be putting forward a comprehensive program of ideas wrapped around a basic concept or three the public can easily comprehend and support.
Easier said than done, sure. Harry Truman said if you laid all the economists end-to-end they'd go every which way, and in their diversity and frequently wayward opinions, Democrats are much the same. But if there is to be any chance of taking back Congress they have to get their act together and fast.
Last week, Democratic wunderkind Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, showed one way. In a speech at the National Governors Association conference, Senator Obama attacked the Bush administration's energy policy. "It's simply not commensurate to the challenge," Obama said, and "treats our energy dependence on oil as more of a nuisance than a serious threat...
"Our enemies are fully aware that they can use oil as a weapon against America. And if we don't take this threat as seriously as the bombs they build or the guns they buy, we will be fighting the war on terror with one hand tied behind our back... America's dependence on oil is a major threat to our national security, and the American people deserve a bold commitment that has the full force of their government behind it."
But beyond the criticism, Obama offered constructive ideas and solutions; ways in which to increase the market for renewable fuels, and this:
"Right now, one of the biggest costs facing auto manufacturers isn't the cars they make, it's the health care they provide," he said. "Health care costs make up $1,500 of the price of every GM car that's made -- more than the cost of steel. Retiree health care alone cost the Big 3 automakers nearly $6.7 billion just last year.
"So here's the deal we can make with the auto companies... allow the federal government to pick up part of the tab for the auto companies' retiree health care costs. In exchange, the auto companies would then use some of that savings to build and invest in more fuel-efficient cars. It's a win-win proposal for the industry -- their retirees will be taken care of, they'll save money on health care, and they'll be free to invest in the kind of fuel-efficient cars that are the key to their competitive future."
What's intriguing and refreshing about the idea is, as Knight Ridder reporter Seth Borenstein wrote, "It features what some see as a traditional liberal's approach of government help for a troubled blue-collar industry and environmental conservation, but it adds a requirement that the industry meet a performance standard in exchange. Equally significant, Obama's proposal breaks with liberal orthodoxy by shunning a call for Washington simply to order automakers to raise fuel-economy standards via federal regulation."
A cogent Democratic Party program of ideas like Obama's could excite the electorate, as could three basic precepts recently posited by political reporter Jamie Wolf: Responsibility. Community. Competence.
"Anomalously enough, these days you could say that Democrats have essentially become the new Republicans," Wolf writes, "in that nearly everything valuable at the core of the traditional Republican message has been trashed by the Bush administration and its leaders in Congress, and it's now the Democrats who are advocating for fiscal discipline, and lack of government interference in private life; for doing things more effectively and less wastefully; for carefully considering before leaping into foreign adventures."
I don't find these ideas and Democrats anomalous. Indeed, if you compare the last five years with the prior eight; when you witness, for example, the administration of FEMA during Katrina, or a $5.6 trillion projected ten year surplus magically whittled into massive debt, you tend to agree that, as Wolf notes, "People who fundamentally don't believe in government will always have a hard time running government well."
If they would make themselves victorious in November, Democrats would do well to heed the words of Wolf and Obama, present solid ideas for the future and constantly remind the electorate of what they have done well in the past. In remembering and returning to prior ideals and principles, they may find success in that most famous of all Polonius' hoary aphorisms, "To thine ownself be true."
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.