I've always thought the LA Times' Ron Brownstein is one of the best, most incisive reporters working in political journalism today. He's unlike most other pundits, who simply blather on, painfully disconnected from reality. Brownstein is a real student of politics, and today he really nails exactly the problem with Democrats.
In his column today, he states:
"On a broader level, Democratic leaders are drifting toward a midterm message that indicts Bush more on grounds of competence (on issues such as Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and prescription drugs) than ideology...A focus on ideology, by contrast, inherently tilts the election forward: It asks voters to decide which side has a better plan to move ahead. Most Democratic leaders seem leery about that approach."
He's exactly right, though I would argue that this paradigm has been at the very core of what has afflicted Democrats for the last many elections. They are making a "management" argument based on competence, while the Republican Party has been making a "movement" argument, based on visceral convictions/ideology (no matter how bankrupt). What that sets up is a battle between uninspired Democratic voters (because really, who gets inspired about "management" arguments), and fervent conservative voters motivated by passion and anger points. Taken to the extreme, this paradigm will explain why Democrats seem only to win elections when Republicans grossly mismanage things (such as in 1992), and also why the conservative movement continues to perservere and intensify even when Democrats can occassionally capitalize on GOP mismanagement.
Let's put it in football terms. The Democrats are pursuing a hail-mary-pass strategy (and every now and then a hail mary pass is caught), while the Republicans are pursuing a ground game strategy that gains just 6 yards, but gains those 6 yards every single play. Once in a while the Democrats might get lucky and score a touchdown because the Republicans will botch a play. But the Republicans are consistently scoring touchdown after touchdown after touchdown by always being focused on moving the ball down field in a methodical way.
Under this paradigm, it is true - Democrats can win an election every now and again. But the conservative movement will never lose steam, because Democrats are not countering that movement with an opposing movement - we're countering it with a criticism of Republican competence. That criticism inherently refuses to highlight the flaws of the conservative ideology, and actually seems to say that if only things were managed by different and more competent Republicans - instead of by different principles - then maybe government run by free market zealots and the neonconservatives lunatics would be perfectly fine (it wouldn't, as we are now seeing firsthand). And until Democratic Party leaders in Washington and progressive organizations outside the party start thinking in movement terms and start addressing the fatal flaw of their shortsighted"competence" strategy, this paradigm is going to continue - and so will the party's chances of building a real majority.