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'06 Dems Must Run on More Than 'Competence'

by Pete Ross

David Sirota's In These Times article (April 14) makes a tight case that Democratic candidates who run on "competence" without an ideological anchor are courting defeat. Likening the Dems' 'competence' strategy to Seinfelt's "show about nothing," Sirota says:

Sadly, it is not a strategy based on ideological differences that puts a boot to conservatives’ neck when their hypocrisy trips them up and they fall down. Thus, while Democrats celebrate the resignations of people like Reps. Tom DeLay (Texas) and Duke Cunningham (Calif.), the GOP simultaneously celebrates because they can now counter the Democrats’ “competence” argument by pointing out that their party has sloughed off the incompetents. In short, the Republican Party and the right’s ideological agenda march forward, largely unscathed.

In making such a limited critique, Democrats tacitly validate conservatives’ ideological goals and further reinforce the public feeling that Democrats have no convictions of their own. For example, despite the GOP scandals and the political opportunities they present, Democrats refuse to push serious reforms like public financing of elections and instead push half-measures and focus on Republican missteps.

It's not a new concern. Sirota quotes L.A. Times columnist Ron Brownstein: “Democratic leaders are drifting toward a midterm message that indicts Bush more on grounds of competence (on issues such as Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and prescription drugs) than ideology.”

Sirota is right about those Dems who run only on their opposition's incompetence. And he is surely right about too many Dems talking about the Iraq war as fundamentally a management problem, rather than a moral, economic and strategic disaster. But it may be overstating the case to say that most Dems are running on competence alone. Many Dems are also emphasizing GOP corruption and some are running on actual policy reforms.

Sirota sees the "competence' strategy as a collateral effect of the growing corporate influence on the Democratic Party leadership.

National Democratic leaders will say they are forced to use the “competence” argument because it is the one big theme that unifies their ideologically diverse congressional membership. But that hides the not-so-secret fact that very powerful, very vocal, and very ideological forces within the Democratic Party support many of the conservative goals that a “competence” strategy inherently validates.

There is nothing wrong with citing the Republicans' incompetence and corruption as major campaign themes. But Sirota is right that, to be credible, Dems also have to embrace a coherent ideology all their own, one which takes a clear stand in support of working people instead of corporate power.