09/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Culture Zohn : Dear Democrats, Please Wake Up!

Running through the Denver Airport last week, I was reminded of my elementary school bulletin board: as an important holiday approached, the board would slowly fill with art projects of various kinds: colored paper and doily collages, carefully lettered (between the three lines) announcements of holiday cheer, a list of special assignments or prizes that were duly demarcated with red and gold stars.

Denver, too, is gradually filling up with paper, cheer and stars of all kinds to distract Democrats from the business at hand.

Let's not take our eyes off the ball. The other side is poised, confident, wealthy and now united behind John McCain who is showing remarkable signs of strength (he has just pulled ahead in some polls) as he gets his act together on the road.

How do I know this? For two days last week, I sat amongst the Republicans as they listened to McCain and Boone Pickens in Aspen.

Everywhere I turned, it seemed, though Aspen is known to be a bastion of liberals, a well-heeled Republican was crawling out from under a very manicured river rock. At the McCain Q and A at the Aspen Institute, though I sat next to Anita Thompson (widow of Hunter ), there was little fear and loathing evident in the room. Mostly it was very happy well-dressed people (there was so much peach, lime green and pinstripe I thought the Preppy Handbook had been reissued that very day) who had come to vet their candidate and a few of us Dems who came to suss out the competition.

To a woman, we were all, both sides, impressed. The Rove machine is doing very well by its new candidate: he is on point (almost identical to the Op Ed he had authored in that day's Wall Street Journal ), nailing his factoids (how many of you can name the ex-Soviet republics that came calling in Georgia last week?) and easy with a self-deprecating quip.

My McCain-O-Meter registered well into the impressed zone, though McCain himself copped to a distinct lack of culture, hoping, he said, to take an art class when he had time. He even said nice things about the French, my second favorite thing.

Arts and France?! This doesn't sound like the old John McCain.

Right now, he is trying to present himself as someone who will listen to all sides (not just rich people) with equanimity and skill. McCain was droll, offensive without being nasty and very relaxed. He was handy at spewing mixed-up rhetoric about his position and Obama's on the war, oil drilling, NATO and tax cuts.

It was seductive.

More than one Hillary supporter was heard afterwards to have been considering voting for McCain.

Yet he is clearly someone who wants to throw our power around: to be "tough" and swaggering in Russia and the Middle East, eager to surge, it seems, from one war to the next. His mostly conservative positions have not changed and now he is in even greater debt to those who have finally thrown their weight behind him.

It's easy for us to rant and rail at McCain and the Republicans, but that is not giving them the credit they deserve: even when everyone predicted we would have a landslide for our side this time (Iraq, the Economy, stupid), the Republicans have stealthily been getting their ducks in a row (as usual) and figuring out how to slam us again.

Remember all the people who threatened to move out of the country when GW Bush was elected for a second term? Well, guess what? You're all still here, potentially watching it happen all over again.

Presume nothing! Anger at the obvious slurs and misrepresentation will get us NOWHERE. We must be smarter, more clever and united. All the nonsense about the Clintons taking over the convention and the perpetual infighting will once again obscure the common goal:

To sweep this current regime, and any and all offshoots out the door.

Pickens was clever and congenial at the Institute, reaching out, he insists, in a bi-partisan way to help us become energy independent; you would never guess he was the Swift Boat Captain and indeed met with Obama soon after. He doesn't claim to have all the answers, but thinks we should be trying absolutely everything on the energy front, though he himself could not spearhead each and every effort. Your intrepid cultural reporter was invited (with mostly Texans, Oklahomans and Arkansans) to a private reception at which Boone (now we are on a first name basis) told me he had read the Huffington Post! I hope he actually makes headway with the Plan (as long as he doesn't give any profits to the Republican machine!)

Boone's wife is as blonde and voluptuous as they come and I now know for sure his last act would not be with a lefty brunette (And by the way, Boone's crocodile shoes are much chicer than McCain's) The Hill recently published its annual listing of the hottest young workers in DC. Comments on the site restated the obvious: Doh! Didn't you know Republican girls are always cuter than Democrats?!!!

Remarkably, later that night when insomnia took hold as all the Red and Blue thoughts were swirling around in my brain, The China Syndrome was on television. The film, for those of you too young to remember, presciently appeared just before the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania, effectively cut off funding for nuclear initiatives ever since. McCain, a proponent of nuclear power (another initiative he credited to the oil-free French) actually has found common ground with some important environmentalists on this: there's no question we should try to put our crippling fear behind us so we can at least examine nuclear energy in a more level-headed, contemporary light.

Here's the bottom line: the Republicans like being in control and they don't want to give it up. They don't plan to go gentle into that good night, art classes, French frites and the Pickens plan notwithstanding.

Recent poll numbers, and columns by Frank Rich and Paul Krugman and Kat Seelye in the NY Times should be giving us a kick in the derrierre (I'm a veteran Francophile--not some parvenu like McCain!)

Wake up Democrats! The Republicans are poaching on our turf, making inroads into what could be defined as centrist goals and letting their more hard-line positions temporarily recede from view. Before the election got nasty (they always do, who are we kidding? Just look at any reality tv show!), Obama was the one reaching out across the aisle. Now McCain and Pickens are sounding like good neighbors who just threw down the fence.

Obama's new negative ads may end up boomeranging: people are seriously worried about the economy and may want to tune out yet more vitriol. During the Kerry campaign, I believed wholeheartedly in the power of the Democrats to make it happen. This time, I am not as sanguine; I saw, first hand on the ground in New Hampshire how much better the Republicans are than we are at toeing the party line (and partying too).

Boone says in his new book, The First Billion is the Hardest (Boonism #9) that his mother once told him: Son, you talk too much. You should listen more. You don't even know who the enemy is.

Don't moms always know best?