Last weekend in Florida, at a meeting of state party chairmen, a lineup of potential candidates made their cases for why they should be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
I don't have a candidate. But I do have a litmus test: Anyone raising the idea that the Democratic Party needs to "move to the middle" should immediately be escorted out of the building. Better yet, a trapdoor should open beneath them, sending them plummeting down an endless chute into electoral purgatory -- which is exactly where the party will be permanently headquartered if it continues to adopt such a strategy.
Among those eyeing the position are Howard Dean, former White House aide Harold Ickes, Texas Rep. Marty Frost, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, New Democrat Network founder Simon Rosenberg, political strategist Donnie Fowler and telecom exec Leo Hindery.
Although fewer than 450 people will ultimately decide who becomes the next party chairman when the DNC votes on Feb. 12, the outcome will have a profound effect on shaping the party's future. Will Democrats continue to toe the strategy line of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that has brought them to the brink of permanent minority-party status? Or will they finally return to the party's roots and recapture its lost political soul?
Welcome to the Great Democratic Party Identity Crisis of 2005.
Ever since the election, Democratic leaders have been crawling over one another in a mad scramble to the middle. "Things are accomplished in the middle. We have to work toward the middle. And I think that that's clear." That was new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Meet the Press. Almost makes you long for the spineless bleating of Tom Daschle, doesn't it?
Last week's meeting of the 21-strong Democratic Governors Association was similarly an orgy of centrist groping, best summed up by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who said, "This, for us, is our moment to push an agenda that is centrist and that speaks to where most people are."
If Gov. Granholm, a rising star in the party, really thinks the center is where the majority of voters were located this past election, the Democrats are in even worse trouble than we think. Have these people learned nothing from 2000, 2002 and 2004?
Putting aside for a moment the question of the party's soul and focusing entirely on hardball power playing, running to the middle has proved to be the single stupidest strategy the Democrats can continue to pursue. As cognitive psychologist George Lakoff told me: "Democrats moving to the middle is a double disaster that alienates the party's progressive base while simultaneously sending a message to swing voters that the other side is where the good ideas are." It unconsciously locks in the notion that the other side's positions are worth moving toward, while your side's positions are the ones to move away from.
And if middle-of-the-roadism is such a great idea, why don't we see Republicans moving there to gain votes? In fact, framing the political debate in right-left terms is so old, so tired and so wrong that we need to resist all temptation to do so. There is nothing left-wing about wanting corporations to pay their fair share rather than hiding their profits in P.O. boxes in Bermuda; there is nothing left-wing in ensuring access to health care now rather than paying the bill at the emergency room later.
That's why the DNC race is so important. The party needs a chair able to drive a stake through the heart of its bankrupt GOP-lite strategy and champion the populist economic agenda that has already proved potent at the ballot box in many conservative parts of the country. Just how potent is revealed in "The Democrats' Da Vinci Code," a brilliant upcoming American Prospect cover story by David Sirota that shows how a growing number of Democrats in some of the reddest regions in America have racked up impressive, against-the-grain wins by framing a progressive economic platform in terms of values and right vs. wrong.
"This," writes Sirota, "is not the traditional (and often condescending) Democratic pandering about the need for a nanny government to provide for the masses. It is us-versus-them red meat, straight talk about how the system is working against ordinary Americans." These red state progressives have brought the Democratic Party back to its true calling and delivered, according to Sirota, "as powerful a statement about morality and authenticity as any of the GOP's demagoguery on 'guns, God and gays.'"
This strategy of economic populism coincides perfectly with what is the most significant shift in Democratic politics in a generation: the astounding growth of a grass-roots donor base. Thanks in no small part to the Internet, the Kerry campaign and the DNC raised between them more than $300 million from grass-roots donors. John Kerry alone raised more than $71 million from donors who contributed $200 or less. What's more, the DNC experienced a sevenfold increase in donors -- skyrocketing from 400,000 in 2000 to 2.7 million in 2004. This reallocation of power away from lobbyists and big corporate donors will finally allow Democrats to stop taking policy dictation from their corporate financiers and start offering up an alternative vision to compete with George W. Bush's. But only if the will is there -- which means only if the next DNC chairman understands and embraces this tectonic shift.
And only if he promises, at all costs, to avoid playing in the middle of the road.