I have traveled since Labor Day to more than a dozen states, including Florida and Colorado, both of which switched from red to blue in the last presidential election, as well as Texas and Tennessee, which remained bright red. Regardless of which state I was visiting, though, every person seemed to ask the same question: What's the matter with the Democrats in Washington?
Perhaps the president is asking himself the same question. "'Sometimes Democrats can be their own worst enemies. Democrats are an opinionated bunch," he noted recently. "Y'all are thinking for yourselves. I like that in you, but it's time for us to make sure that we finish the job here. We are this close and we've got to be unified."
With the Democrats controlling the White House, Congress and the majority of gubernatorial offices, folks think the party has become too timid and insular, afraid to stand up for its values and, yes, far too needy for obtaining bipartisan consensus and GOP approval.
According to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, approval of the Obama administration's handling of health care reform, among Democrats, is down about 15 percent since the election. The administration simply cannot afford to lose its base. If they do, they will surely lose their footing when it comes to taking on even more difficult issues in the future. It's hard to call for bold agenda items like climate change and health care reform and to expect them to get done without strong presidential leadership and involvement.
One of my former Hill colleagues recently wrote me, "I wonder how (the administration) thinks we'll maintain our majority with the economy still lagging and unemployment so high." Good question. But it doesn't answer what's wrong with the majority party.
The diversity of the modern Democratic Party should be viewed as one of its greatest strengths. Yet in today's highly partisan environment, the chattering classes often see internal party squabbles, such as the debate over the so-called "public option" or sending more troops to Afghanistan, as a sign of weakness or disunity. It is neither.
It is a sign of our strength, depth and diversity.
Inside the Democratic Caucus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is fighting tooth and nail for the public option. The House already passed a climate change bill. And Congressional Democrats took a lot of flack for items in the economic stimulus package that the White House wanted. Yet, as one Hill staffer noted to me in private, "The White House did not come to their aid when they begin to take the hits."
Note to White House: Your colleagues on the Hill are anxiously awaiting for you to get off the bench and get into the game on tough issues.
President Obama has worked hard to remain above the fray, often allowing other Democratic leaders like Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to do the heavy lifting. One thing is clear in all of this back and forth: Too often, Democrats have taken their collective eyes off their common goals.
It's time Democrats remember 1994.
Having spent 12 long years in the wilderness, Democratic voters, after working hard to get a Democratic president elected two years earlier, punished their elected officials at the polls for doing little to get the government off the dime and enact the changes they had voted for in 1992. The Democratic Congress, which had done little to maintain their base, lost in a landslide of Republican victories.
Two things hold true. One, the president and Democrats need to hammer home, again and again and again, the message that passing health care reform is not only a moral issue, but one that impacts the overall health of our economy. Two, the Republicans have lost credibility and respect with town hall fear tactics and uncivil behavior so egregious that it stirred up an immediate and powerful backlash. While Democrats may have lost some support, only 20 percent of voters now identify themselves as Republicans.
Democrats still have time to show bold leadership in helping solve America's toughest problems, and this must start with the party keeping faith with its promises. Voters did not ask for hesitation in turning around the worst economy in a generation. They did not vote for incremental changes in fighting to provide quality health care to all Americans. And they didn't ask Democratic leaders to wait for Republicans before acting on climate change to save our planet.
They trusted Democrats, after giving up on Republicans, to get it right. With the help of a strong White House willing to use its powers and pulpit in concert with House and Senate leaders, we will.
Until then, I can't help but recall a saying that's been around as long as I have, maybe longer: "I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat." Perhaps this explains what the heck is the matter with my party.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR; contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill; and former campaign manager for Al Gore.