Democrats hunt for 2006 slogan

By Liz Sidoti

NEW ORLEANS – Ask Democratic leaders to identify their party’s election-year message and you get everything but consensus.

Ahead in polls, Democrats are divided over whether they already have – or even need – a national theme that tells voters exactly where the party stands.

“One message? Hmmm. I don’t know. Let me think about it,” Alvaro Cifuentes said after a long pause. Several minutes later, the head of the Democratic National Committee’s Hispanic Caucus said: “You can’t try to simplify your politics with a slogan. You can’t.”

In more than a dozen interviews, Democrats who gathered here for the DNC’s spring meeting rattled off lists of what they believe to be their party’s message in 2006. Each had a different take.

Some said their party stands for affordable health care, lobbying reform, lower federal deficits. Others mentioned human rights, the well-being of families and the search for new energy sources. Still others cited education money, Medicare that works, a reliable Social Security program and world peace.

Lots of issues. No single message.

“It’s not that we don’t stand for anything, it’s that sometimes we stand for everything,” said Barry Rubin, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party.

Rubin said the stand-for-everything approach invites GOP criticism.

Hoping to make their election-year message clear to voters, Democratic leaders have launched a series of six policy statements. “Honest Leadership & Open Government” and “Real Security” came first, soon to be followed by positions on energy, the economy, health care and retirement.

DNC Chairman Howard Dean has talked about those six priorities for months and refers to them when asked to identify the Democrats’ message for Election Day in November. Recently, he added a seventh: cracking down on illegal immigration.

Democrats say their message is not as muddled as it sometimes sounds.

“We may talk about it in different ways but there’s still the same goal,” said DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney.

Indeed, the Democratic activists meeting here offered many messages. Some of them corresponded. Others did not.

“We offer an alternative to the corruption that has been blatant in Washington. We offer an alternative to tax cuts for the rich,” said Melissa Schroeder, a DNC member from Wisconsin.

Offered Jerry Maynard, deputy chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party: “It’s taking our country back for the working family, when you look at gas prices, health care and jobs.”

Linda Chavez-Thompson, the AFL-CIO’s executive vice president, said one Democratic message will come together. “We’re formulating it now, and that is, we are going to change things in Washington and the Democratic Party has the answer,” she said.

Janice Brunson, a DNC member from Arizona, said the Democratic Party has a clear message for 2006, but she struggled to explain it.

“The problem is we don’t have a two- or three-word slogan that pops out,” she said. Then she joked that the party may need to hire the quotable former President Clinton to come up with a sound bite.

In recent years, the Democratic Party has struggled to explain what it stands for in clear, succinct language that is repeated often enough to resonate with voters. Strategists in both parties agree that Republicans are better at political “branding.”

In his 2004 re-election campaign, President Bush stood for strong and principled leadership. A decade earlier, the GOP’s Contract with America, a set of unifying GOP policy initiatives, was credited with helping Republicans win congressional seats – although some Democrats say the sour mood of the country had more to do with the power change.

The landscape seems to be favoring Democrats this election year. Approval ratings for Bush and the Republican-led Congress are at their lowest points since Bush took office. About 70 percent of the public believes the country is on the wrong track, a bad sign for the party in power.

Democrats hold a wide lead over Republicans when voters are asked which party they want to control Congress.

Some Democrats said emphasizing GOP woes will be enough to win on Election Day.

“If your opponent is self-destructing, let them do it,” said Mike Edmondson, executive director of the Indiana Democratic Party.

Others said the party must do more.

“We’ve been given a present and we need to take advantage of it,” said Judy Olson Duhamel, chairwoman of the South Dakota Democratic Party.