There's a lot to be encouraged about from high-profile Democrats lately – and there's also a lot to be pissed off about too. The dichotomy shows that the party is in the throes of something big.
Let's start with the good stuff. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D) is showing some real spine in calling President Bush out for what he is: a liar. Some in Washington's cocktail party circuit may cringe at that characterization, but that's only because the Beltway Establishment has pathetically accepted the fact that the White House blatantly lied to the public about the war – and now has deemed those lies off limits for criticism. Only when someone as high profile as Reid brings up the honesty question is the establishment forced to listen – and we should be happy that the new Minority Leader is showing his fighting spirit, because no matter what the Beltway culture says, ordinary Americans don't like to be lied to.
Another good development – DNC Chairman Howard Dean is getting all over the country in pursuit of his "50-State Strategy." I got to sit with Dean at dinner while he was visiting here in Helena, Montana for the Western Democratic Caucus meetings and he was as pugnacious and aggressive as ever. He's on a record-setting fundraising clip (despite the party's fat cats complaining), and he's putting that money where his mouth is, investing in red states where the party has been absent. Good for him.
Unfortunately, that leads us to the bad news. Delaware Sen. Joe Biden (D) is – as usual – using any opportunity he can to promote himself to the detriment of the rest of the party. This time, he publicly attacked Dean for Dean's harsh rhetorical attacks on the GOP. Biden grandstanded on ABC's This Week by saying Dean "doesn't speak for me with that kind of rhetoric." Now it's true - Dean's comments weren't the most articulate. But, last I checked, there's no "I" in "Democrat" - and that means Democrats should be playing like a team, not attacking their own chairman.
The nerve of Biden in particular to do this is really stunning. The fact is, we should be glad Dean is NOT speaking for people like Biden - because if he was, he wouldn't be speaking for most other Democrats or mainstream Americans. Biden, you may recall, was key in helping pass the credit card-industry written Bankruptcy Bill, at the behest of his credit card/banking-industry donors. He's also the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, yet has been noticeably unwilling to take a serious position on the War in Iraq, other than to advocate sending more U.S. troops and spending billions of dollars more.
Then there's Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D), who patted himself on the back during his campaign for "loudly and vigorously" opposing the war in Iraq. Yet, in his first six months in office, he voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State, despite her lies leading up to the war. He could be making waves about the war, especially considering he serves on the Foreign Relations Committee. But, like Biden, has been almost completely reticent about opposing the war since going to Washington, even in the face of polls which show most Americans think the war was not worth it. I did a brief check of Obama's Senate website, thinking that someone who "loudly and vigorously" opposed the war would have that opposition splashed all over the place. Unfortunately, I can barely find any references to him opposing the war, much less "loudly and vigorously." And remember, his war position (or apparent lack thereof) comes along with a series of other Obama votes on critical economic issues where he sided with the Republicans. Is this the same Barack Obama who wowed the Democratic Convention and is supposedly the next great progressive hope? Let's hope the real Barack Obama - the one from the campaign trail - comes back soon.
Clearly the party is in the process of making a big decision about its future. Will it follow the likes of Reid, Dean and others and transform itself into a conviction party that is motivated by principles? Or, will it continue in the "triangulation" mode with calculated, watered-down positions that continue telling America Democrats simply stand for nothing? Polls show the former has the support of millions of Americans, while the latter might get Democrats the support of out-of-touch pundits like Joe Klein and Tom Friedman - but not much else. Can the party listen to and stand up for the American public, or will it continue genuflecting to the self-consumed Beltway culture that has driven it into the minority? Stay tuned.