Last night, I overheard my wife talking to a college friend who lives in Virginia, the site of one of the nation's hottest Senate races. "Lisa" is a social worker and someone who cares deeply about the fate of the world. But I know she cares nothing about the fate of either political party, so I mouthed to my wife, "Ask her how she'll vote!"
Lisa reported that she has no idea how to vote this year. She has heard vaguely about the Virginia Senate campaign's "macaca" scandal, but doesn't know which party was responsible or why it should effect her vote. She said she wants to be a responsible citizen and to cast a thoughtful ballot, but she just can't tell which party or which candidates are truly devoted to making America better.
It looks like the Democrats will squeak through next week with a narrow victory in the House -- thanks to the GOP's spectacular implosion. But there is still time to pull off a massive sweep of the entire Congress and set the stage for a total victory in 2008. The key is to lead boldly enough to catch the attention of non-partisan but concerned voters like Lisa.
This week, when even apolitical voters like Lisa are paying attention, the Democrats must shout their convictions at the top of their lungs. Candidates: please forget all the little policy details your advisors have you fixated on; Please forget the minutia of the back-and-forth in which your opponent has entangled you. Now is the time to stand up and yell:
"America, give us Democrats a chance! Give us a strong majority in Congress and we'll give you real change!"
Lisa doesn't even know that a national decision is on the table. She hasn't heard that there is a chance to switch control of Congress. She hasn't heard that the Democrats are asking for the chance to take over and radically improve America (because they're haven't asked for that chance yet!).
No doubt if Democratic pollsters interviewed Lisa with abstract and passive questions, they would conclude that she doesn't want big change from the Democrats. That kind of analysis is at the root of Democrats' passivity right now. But that kind of analysis ignores the possibility that leadership can change the entire context of an election.
Here's an analogy: Imagine a friend who's down in the dumps and hasn't left the house for days. What will he do if you ask him, passively in the abstract, "Do you want to do something different tonight?" He won't budge. But what if you say, "Hey, let's go to this new restaurant that just opened, and then let's go see this movie I heard was great!" You might have to implore your hesitant friend several times, but you're much more likely to get him out of the house with that active and specific approach.
The American people have never felt more hopeless about their politicians. And that cynicism applies equally to both parties. There is still is very dangerous possibility that, without leadership on the part of the Democrats, without a strong request from the Democrats to the American people, that voters will refrain from punishing the GOP in all but Mark Foley's own district.
Failing to lead clearly and audibly in this final week risks a failure to even just win back the House. But more importantly, it guarantees a failure to make a major sweep of Congress and put Democrats back in power for generation. Winning the House by only a few seats this term may in fact be the worst thing that could happen to the Democratic party: it will provide the GOP an excuse to fail, and won't give Democrats the power to succeed. Republicans will spend then next two years running against "Democratic obstructionism" and sweep back in to all branches of government in 2008.
Those are the true stakes this week. Democrats are left with a simple choice: lead or lose.