The Big Idea

The Three Stooges

Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Howard Dean.

According to the latest CBS News poll, George W. Bush’s approval rating hit a personal worst of 34 percent in February, making him the most unpopular president since Nixon during Watergate. Thanks to the Abramoff scandal, confidence in the Republican-run Congress is only two points higher. Such numbers naturally provoke Democratic fantasies about doing in 2006 what Republicans did in 1994, taking both houses in a historic sweep. Conditions seem ripe in many ways. But Democrats do not have a charismatic schemer like Newt Gingrich to lead the way. Instead, they have Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Howard Dean.

Pelosi is a conventionally liberal congresswoman from San Francisco who serves as House minority leader. The quite conservative Reid, who comes from a small town in Nevada, is the Senate minority leader. Dean, the former Vermont governor who seemed headed for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 until he yodeled in Iowa, is the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Since assuming their positions, the three of them have shown themselves to be somewhere between useless and disastrous as party leaders. Individually, they lack substance and policy smarts (Pelosi); coherence and force (Reid); and steadiness and mainstream appeal (Dean). Collectively, they convey an image of liberal elitism, disarray, and crabbiness.

Pelosi and Reid do deserve credit for getting the Democratic troops in line. Both are former party whips, and since their promotions they’ve continued to wield the scourge effectively. In Bush’s first term, when the too-nice Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt ruled the roost, Democratic defectors let the president pass his tax cuts. In the second term, by contrast, the congressional minority has maintained discipline, winning a few morale-boosting victories and forcing some uncomfortably close votes. Bush was not able to peel off centrist Democrats to negotiate with him on Social Security, which meant a well-deserved defeat for his half-baked privatization plan. But whip work, which emphasizes horse-trading and instilling fear in the rank and file, is poor training for policy-making and message-building. Those are the facilities the institutional Democratic Party sorely lacks at the moment.

Nancy Pelosi epitomizes this problem. To understand her politics, think Huffington Post without the flashes of wit. Here is a typical Bush-bashing, cliché-ridden quote of hers: “The emperor has no clothes. When are people going to face the reality? Pull this curtain back!” Pelosi dismisses people who disagree as hoodwinked or stupid. She’s not exactly Hillary Clinton herself, though. A five-minute interview is usually sufficient to exhaust her knowledge on any subject. And she can flop around like a fish. When Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., proposed a pullout, or “redeployment,” of U.S. troops from Iraq in November, Pelosi’s first reaction was to isolate him. “Mr. Murtha speaks for himself,” she said. But after taking a drubbing from left-wing bloggers and her anti-war constituents, she announced that she supported Murtha after all. This shored up her image as Washington’s answer to Barbra Streisand, and set up Dick Cheney to paint the Democrats as defeatist and unsupportive of our troops in Iraq.

Reid’s flaws are mostly a mirror image of Pelosi’s. A Mormon convert who grew up in a working-class family in a small town, he doesn’t dabble in Hollywood politics. Reid voted for the Iraq war resolution, and is anti-gun-control, anti-gay marriage, and—most shocking for a Democratic figurehead—anti-abortion. But as a leader, he’s colorless and erratic. Most of the time, he’s a study in gray, except when he livens it up with a spasm of random aggression. Reid has called Alan Greenspan a “hack,” Bush a loser and a liar, and, in one off-the-mark, vaguely racist-sounding rant, charged that Clarence Thomas’ opinions were poorly written. (You can criticize Thomas’ opinions for lots of things, but Slate’s legal correspondent, Dahlia Lithwick, tells me they are quite well written.) After calling for more Supreme Court justices as brilliant as Antonin Scalia, he recommended that Bush nominate his undistinguished flunky Harriet Miers. Moreover, Reid’s own pork-barreling and lobbyist-courting suggest that making him majority leader would merely replace the Republican hackocracy in Congress with a Democratic hackocracy. Reid has declined to repudiate contributions from Abramoff-linked Indian tribes, and his own family includes so many lobbyists that after some nasty press coverage, he had to ban them from his office.

Howard Dean is smarter than either Pelosi or Reid and clearly stands for something. Unfortunately, what he stands for in the minds of most people is incandescent rage and upscale socialism. Dean has an unfortunate knack for making himself the issue, even when, as lately, he’s trying to maintain a low profile. His injudicious comment about the GOP being the party of white Christians was followed by his statement that “the idea that we’re going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong.” Such gaffes lead to endless debate about how Howard Dean is screwing up, rather than about how Bush is screwing up. Building on the work of a DNC pollster, Dean a few months ago took to referring to his party’s base as “merlot Democrats.” With him and Pelosi in charge, this threatens to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But more important than what the three stooges do wrong is what they can’t seem to do at all, namely articulate a positive agenda for reform and change. Voters have grown disenchanted with Bush’s mishandling of the war in Iraq and the country’s finances, and with the evangelical tilt of many of his policies. But there remains a baseline mistrust of Democrats on security, the economy, and values issues. For a sweep big enough to recover both houses of Congress, the party will almost certainly need an affirmative message as well as a negative one. Democrats need to demonstrate they won’t just cut and run from Iraq, that they see security as more than a civil liberties issue, and that their alternative to tax cuts isn’t just more spending on flawed social programs and unchallenged growth in entitlements.

Thus far, Pelosi, Reid, and Dean have been literally unable to develop such a national message for the party’s congressional candidates. Not just a good message—any message. Their “legislative manifesto,” originally promised for November, has been delayed more often than a flight on Jet Blue. When it eventually arrives, expect something benign and insipid. In 1994, Gingrich had the Contract With America. In 2006, Democrats will have another glass of merlot.