On a hot morning in June, 200 Democrats were gathered in a plush Washington hotel, hopeful for ideas that might help their party win back political power. The event was entitled: 'What Comes Next: A New Politics for America'. Given the party's gloomy mood and dismal recent electoral performance the lack of a question mark seemed almost brave. The event's two most anticipated speakers treated the audience to two starkly different visions of how those new politics might play out. The first was Hillary Clinton, the centrist New York senator and overwhelming favourite to win her party's presidential nomination. The second was Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the leading voice of the hugely popular weblog Daily Kos and de facto leader of democratic online activists across America.
Senator Clinton's remarks were a study in cautious and deliberate politics, concentrating on a new wheeze dreamed up by congressional Democrats. 'The nine democratic women senators have come together around what we call a check list for change,' Clinton explained. She proceeded to outline a nine-point agenda of practical policies. They were sensible, if hardly thrilling. She was, she said, 'very proud to be a Democrat'. Later in the day, as part of a panel discussion, it was clear that Clinton's presentation had not brought the same feeling of pride to everyone in her audience. Moulitsas sharply criticised what he dubbed her 'laundry list' of proposals. Instead he made a passionate call for Democrats who had political vision. In remarks at another event in Washington some months before, he had put his views in this way:
We need democrats who stand up for themselves. We need democrats
who have a clear voice and ideas. We need democrats who aren't
afraid of Republicans, who are not afraid of the media when they
get attacked, who are not afraid of the rightwing noise machine.
And we haven't had a lot of luck in this city.
This clash-between Clinton and Moulitsas, between the democratic establishment and its roots-is a vital battleground in progressive American politics. If the battle goes well, meaning if the establishment and the insurgent base work together, the Democrats could perfectly conceivably win back Congress this November and blitz a discredited Republic regime in 2008. Equally likely--perhaps more so--they could fight among themselves, confirming their public image as divided, rudderless and idea-free. What are the odds? To have a better idea, there are four questions which need to be answered. How deep of a hole is the party in? How did they happen to end up in it? What, if anything, have they been doing to make up ground on the seemingly unbeatable Republican political machine? And if the machine can be fixed, do they have anyone who can actually win the presidency in 2008?
The lowest ebb
Listing what ails the Democrats is something of a Washington parlour game. Everyone knows that Republicans believe in lower taxes, less government and killing terrorists. Who can say the same of their opponents? More annoyingly, it is tricky to judge the true strength of either party in the trough between elections. The opposition party has no single leader. No public face is possible, so few big ideas cohere and united criticism is rare. Ultimately, no one candidate can choose between the competing, clashing visions of what the Democratic Party is for. The type of wholesale reinvention seen so recently by David Cameron's Conservatives is all but impossible. That caveat aside, it is worth remembering quite how deep the Democrats have sunk. The party has lost two elections, and control of both houses of Congress. The majority of the nation's governors' mansions and legislatures are in Republican hands. And this year, for the first time in a generation, the balance of the Supreme Court is conservative. Not since the 1920s has the party had such little power. On any measure it as at a low electoral ebb. …