Wanted: Newt

I've got to take issue with The Carpetbagger's read of Josh Green's piece in the latest Atlantic Monthly. Like the the Honorable Bagger, I like Josh Green. Also like the honorable Bagger, his piece did not exactly spur me to do cartwheels around the room. But the Carpetbagger's critique is simply a restatement of Green's thesis rendered as a criticism: Green's article attempts to argue that Democrats are faltering under the stewardship of Reid and Pelosi because, while they've been excellent parliamentary maneuverers and done much to stymie Bush's agenda, they've not done anything to repair the party's tattered public image. So while good at working Congress, they're terrible as public faces for the party.

Green's right. Publicly, Democrats have no leader, no singular voice. While our elected officials are certainly under the command of much-improved tacticians, we're winning battles without changing hearts and minds (for evidence of this, go here or here). Dean, who many thought would take on the role of spokesman, has thus far proved cameraphobic, and Reid and Pelosi, as proven in their rebuttal to the State of the Union, would be better off catching the Dean Disease. Mr. Bagger goes on to write:

[A]re aggressive congressional leaders who are great salespeople necessary for success?

To answer this, consider two names — Bob Michel (R-Ill.) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.). In 1993 and 1994, Dems controlled the White House, the Senate, the House, and a majority of governor’s offices. The top two Republicans in the nation were Senate Minority Leader Dole and House Minority Leader Michel. To follow Green’s logic, these two were awful choices — they were bland and uninspiring, part of the “old guard,” and they could hardly be characterized as “revolutionaries.” If memory serves, their two years of opposition against a president of a different party worked out pretty well for them in the ‘94 midterms.

Unfortunately, he's forgetting a name. Pelosi's a good analogue for Michel and Reid's not too dissimilar from Dole, but the guy associated with the Republican Revolution went by a different title -- Newt. In 1994, Michel and Dole did an amazing job stomping Clinton's initiatives and setting the Democrats up for failure, but it was Newt who became the de facto opposition leader, Newt who changed the party's image through the Contract With America, Newt who provided the affirmative rationale for the Republican party while his congressional colleagues calmly dismantled the Democrat's agenda. And that, it seemed to me, was what Green was saying -- we need a Newt. Without him, Bush's plans can be stopped and Republicans might even suffer losses, but Democrats won't make gains.

Now, Reid and Pelosi are fine for the moment, and insofar as Green is criticizing the job they're doing he's wrong. But as he's criticizing the job they're not doing -- building the brand -- he's on solid ground. Down the road, one or the other may become the voice we need, or they may effectively anoint Rahm Emanuel, Obama, Clinton, Durbin, or any of the other charismatic speakers cacusing with the Democrats to fill the position, but at some point, our congressional victories are going to have to get off the couh, head out into the world, and turn our poll numbers around. And, as of yet, despite Reid and Pelosi's great work, that's not happening.