Golden opportunity presents itself for Democrats to lead

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It’s difficult to grasp the gravity of this: the Republican leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are in big legal trouble, and the Republican president recently scored approval ratings that would put a smile on even Richard Nixon’s face.

This is exactly what pundits have been saying since Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry conceded last November. How can a party with such a dominant hold on Congress – 55 Senators and 231 representatives – and a strong hobo-on-sandwich grip of the White House sustain perfect unity and direction with so many things on its collective to-do list? There has to be some infighting.

Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum recently went out on a limb and criticized the White House on its handling of Social Security reform. President George W. Bush put the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 on hold, ending guarantees on wages during reconstruction of the beleaguered Gulf Coast. Causing concern from unions and many moderate Republicans alike, the Washington Post reported that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina could cause further division in a party that just plum can’t afford it.

The Democrats – everyone but Zell Miller and Joe Lieberman – are whetting their chops. It’s like hating your boss at work, wanting his job, and then watching as he has a complete collapse in the office one day. The guy forgets a meeting, neglects to send a memo to a field office, downloads a computer virus on the office’s network and hires an incompetant person to run a major part of the company. It’s a Democratic field day!

And the Democrats have done what every pundit and adviser has suggested: wait. Don’t strike while the boss is still having his collapse. There’s no need, because the people can sense failure on their own. Someone who points and laughs at a screw-up comes off as condescending and ignorant, something that Democratic leadership is already accused enough of. No one needs more of that.

I think we’ve crossed the threshold, however. It’s not time for the Democrats to go negative against Senate Majority Bill Frist of Tennessee or House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, both Republicans. The Democrats need to go positive and come up with a few plans that will get the public’s attention at a time when Joe and Jane Q. Public, getting all riled up for an Iowa caucus, need some stability.

If the Democrats say their leadership would have handled Hurricane Katrina better than the Republicans did, then prove it. Come up with a relief or reconstruction plan, solve the ongoing disconnect between local, state and federal government down there. Draw the line and come up with a solution to labor and reconstruction that doesn’t involve repealing important Depression-era wage law.

Sense that most Americans aren’t too jazzed about Social Security “reform”? Do some research and find out what they are concerned about and tackle it. Now is the time to prove that the Democrats are more than a has-been opposition party, that they can still be a viable alternative for people who think that poverty is terrible and that government revenue isn’t.

But if Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean goes on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and calls DeLay and Frist and Bush crooked leaders, what does that do? It can only play into the public’s perceptions that all Beltway players are just that: players.

At a time when the American public has experienced just about as much incompetence from local, state and national leaders as it can, we need an alternative. We need one man or woman from some branch of government to stand up and do something progressive. We need someone to take us forward.

What I’m most afraid of is the possibility that this person will be a Republican, or at least a moderate. It won’t be long before more people jump ship on the hard-line GOP. When a young, good-looking southern representative who just happens to be a former GOP poster boy stands up and says something profound and starts to rally the troops while the Democrats stand idly by, we’re in trouble.

I suppose that’s contingent on the belief that the Democrats are the right people to lead the country. But to be honest, what in the past six months has proven that?

It used to be anybody but Bush. Now it’s anybody but Republicans. Yikes.

Ryan Denham can be reached at ryan.denham@csun.edu.