Creative Loafing: Hello, any Democrats out there? Can the 'Party of the People' get off its knees and win?

May 24, 2006

Hello, any Democrats out there?
Can the ‘Party of the People’ get off its knees and win?

Published 05.24.06

“Democrats are still spending like they own things,” says GOP pollster Mark Rountree.
Just how pathetic is the Democratic Party?

Last week, a Fulton County judge struck down the 2004 “gay marriage amendment” to the state’s constitution. The reasoning was precise. The amendment addresses two points — gay marriage and civil unions — and thus isn’t kosher because the state constitution requires amendments to be single-issue.

There’s no dispute that most Georgians want to ban gay marriage. But I’m not sure we’d see the same majority lusting to carve a further pound of flesh from gays by denying them any civil benefits.

At the very least, it was an opportunity for the Democrats to stake out some sort of position. They didn’t have to embrace gay marriage — after all, it’s a non-issue other than as a goad to get social conservatives to the polls. (Gay marriage was illegal in Georgia before the constitutional amendment, and it remains illegal now.)

Democrats could have said:

“We stand for the rule of law. The amendment that was passed was flawed — and intentionally flawed — to exact cruel sanctions on many of our citizens. Let’s do it right, and by the constitution.”

Or, “We are a party of deep moral and religious values. Jesus ministered to those who were despised by society. The Republicans trample the weakest among us, and rely on hatred and division to win.”

Or, “We stand for families. Nothing in the amendment protects families. The Republicans are destroying families — by poor education, lack of good jobs and inadequate health care.”

So, what did the Democrats do? They rushed to kiss Republican butt.

Attorney General Thurbert Baker almost wet himself getting out a press release denouncing the judge’s ruling, proclaiming there’s no danger of homosexuals marrying. From the frantic tone, you’d have thought hundreds of thousands of semi-nude gays were massed at Georgia’s borders preparing to march on county courthouses for their nuptials.

Thus, Baker played right into the Republicans’ maximum wedge issue of 2004. The constitutional amendment was devised to win votes, not create a better society.

Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cathy Cox issued an on-her-knees release, assuring voters that “marriage is a sacred union of one man and one woman.”

Mark Taylor, the other Democratic governor wannabe, was mute.

Lots of leadership from all of those, um, leaders.

Henry Barbour, nephew of and political strategist for Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, told me last year how his party coordinates messages and legislation throughout the South. “We know what we stand for,” he said. “We’ll take what works in Mississippi and transport it to Florida or Georgia.”

The Democrats can’t come up with a cohesive message throughout an entire city block, much less a state, region or the nation.

So, contemplating the sad-sack Democrats, I asked several political consultants, mostly Republicans, what they’d do if Howard Dean, Cathy Cox and Mark Taylor called and begged for advice.

“Ha!” laughed Jay Williams, of the Republican consulting firm Stoneridge Group in Buford. “I don’t want them to take over again. But if I had to give advice, I’d tell them to look at the faith-based voters. The national [Democratic] party does a few things that address people of faith, but it’s pretty evident that it’s window dressing. I’d tell the Democrats to stop attacking the people they need.”

That advice resonates with other GOP strategists. One, who requested anonymity because he stays deeply in the background of campaigns across the Southeast, said, “Get in touch with your constituents. They don’t like gay marriage, they don’t like tax increases, they don’t like rights for illegal immigrants.”

Mark Rountree, of the GOP-oriented Landmark Communications in Duluth, opined, “Democrats should stop being shrill. Their version of values is to call people crooked and corrupt. But what do they stand for?”

At a more technical level, Rountree said the Democrats have lost the money that flows to the dominant party. “But Democrats are still spending like they own things,” he said — comparing that to what he called the “guerrilla tactics” of Republicans when they were out of power.

Rountree points out that Democratic pollster Alan Secrest “charges $25,000 for a poll, and we do better polling for $3,000.” (Secrest’s latest poll defies a number of other surveys and puts his client Taylor ahead of Cox by 21 points in the Democratic primary race — but the pollster won’t disclose critical background information that would help interpret the results.)

Most of the Republican recommendations would have Democrats sounding like their opponents. But there’s a subtle difference. “The Republican Party didn’t take power in one year,” Rountree said. “We articulated consistent positions over a long period, and people listened.”

Of course, the GOP has changed. Ronald Reagan’s message was the idea that less government was good for society in general. That followed decades of Democrats presenting their programs as beneficial to all Americans. The Democrats’ message became narrower, however, and the GOP was adept at, say, portraying anti-poverty programs as benefiting only undeserving welfare loafers at the expense of the broader community.

Can the Dems show their foes have lost sight of the “common good” with such policies as enrich-the-rich tax breaks? “I’m surprised we’re not being attacked on transportation issues,” Rountree says.

“We need to show some backbone and point to the reality of the Republican Party,” says Atlanta Democratic consultant Beth Schapiro. “What do [Republicans] focus on today? Governing in secret. Identifying wedge issues such as gay marriage and immigration to divide people. Catering to special interests.”

Democrats are “the stewards of the state economy,” Schapiro says. “We built a great economy in Georgia. We focused on education, which is now stalled. We’re the party of health care and looking out for the middle class. We need to say that.”

Ah, well, maybe. But Cox and Baker are more intent on out-Republicaning the Republicans. Taylor, meanwhile, is cowering.

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