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A Graduation Report:
Dems Need to Sharpen Up

By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers

June 20, 2006

Last weekend, I was visiting my old Washington State stomping grounds -- I lived and taught in Bellingham back in the day -- to witness the graduation of my nephew from The Evergreen State College in Olympia.


Therein lies a tale, and not a hopeful one for Democrats in November and in 2008.


For the Democrats to win the upcoming midterm election, and the presidential election two years later, they must be, and must openly and consistently demonstrate that they are, street-smart and aggressively on point with their base and able to draw as well from the middle (Red Dawg Democrats, disaffected traditional and moderate Republicans, Independents, Libertarians, et al.).


But if Democratic Governor Chris Gregoire's commencement address to Evergreen's 2006 graduating class is any example of oppositional smarts, the GOP has little reason to worry about the upcoming elections.  (Note: They sure do have plenty of other reasons to worry.)


Washingtonians told me that Gregoire is a centrist/liberal Democrat who is making good appointments and leading the state reasonably well. With those assets in her favor, here was a perfect opportunity for this sitting governor to make some friends and influence people. There were roughly several thousand graduates and perhaps three or four times that many family members there to celebrate with their diploma-earning students. As a politician, you salivate at being able to address such a potentially friendly, captive audience.


What a blown opportunity.




A competent advance team, speechwriter and governor would have known that Evergreen is the most progressive of all of Washington's state colleges, and would have tailored the commencement speech to that audience.


Instead, Gov. Gregoire's team outfitted her with a Republican-lite speech on the glories of globalization. She had been delivering this same address at a number of other college commencements that same week, and it came across as what it was: a generic speech (and a not very well-written one at that), a one-size-fits-all address that would have been more appropriate for a gathering of business types, or, at the very least, for a more conservative college in Eastern Washington.


And so for a half hour, the Evergreen audience sat on their hands, listening to political platitudes in this somewhat boring paean to the opportunities offered by globalization. The governor dully read her generic prose as prepared, seemingly oblivious to whom she was speaking. This despite Evergreen's lib/rad reputation and despite the protest organized against her appearance by a vocal group of activist students; about 50, wearing protest t-shirts, turned their backs on her during her address, while others unfurled banners against her welfare policies, or occasionally heckled her from trees near the stage.


Her desultory, DLC-like speech could just as well have been broadcast on a large TV monitor from a remote location. That's how removed it was from the reality of the thousands of visitors and graduates sitting in the sun (and occasional drizzle) in the Evergreen quad.




Am I suggesting that Gregoire shouldn't have spoken on that topic? Probably would have been a politically wise idea, but if she really wanted to address the issue of globalization, the governor and a savvy speechwriter would have recognized that some concession to her audience and to the complexity of that issue might have been appropriate.


After all, she was speaking in a bastion of anti-globalization, and that activism demanded that she offer some acknowledgment of the issues raised by those opposing free-market globalization on environmental and human-rights grounds.  (Evergreen is a school devoted to environmental education, and an intelligent Democratic advance person would have known that and alerted the speechwriter accordingly.)


How often will similar scenarios be repeated around the country in the next five months and during the run-up to the 2008 election? Incompetent planning, inappropriate speeches, political gaffes, dull deliveries -- do the Democrats really want to remain a party in permanent exile from the reins of national power?


The Republicans may be badly riven by issues such as adventuring wars abroad, humongous deficits and a languid economy at home, aligning America with torture and the suppression of civil and human rights, massive government spying on U.S. citizens, etc. etc. But, under the tutelage of Herr Rove, they know how to run a campaign, illegal and unethical though many of their campaign tactics might be.


I'm not advocating that the Democrats ape the Republicans in how to steal elections through dirty tricks, kicking hundreds of thousands of legitimate voters off the rolls, manipulating the tallies, etc. Not at all.




What I am suggesting is that the Democrats must recognize and study the success of the GOP's M.O., and then devise creative, effective counter-strategies; in short, our side has to be at least twice as efficient, passionate, clever, and dedicated to victory if we're to have any hope of taking down the corrupt, reckless, dangerous Bush crew at the top and thus of turning this country around.


That means forethought, planning, competence, smart thinking in terms of candidates, speeches, focus on issues, staying on-message, framing the issues correctly, massive campaigns to register new voters, pre-emptively going to court if need be to guarantee honest and transparent elections, and so on.


Can it be done? Is the Gregoire scenario noted above going to be the negative example of how uncertain, incompetent Democratic campaigns are going to be conducted? It could turn out that way, but let me end this rant on a positive note.




The speaker after Gov. Gregoire was one chosen by the faculty:  Jose Gomez, J.D., who said he's been waiting for 50 years to deliver his public address, and it was a doozy. It connected his hardscrabble life -- eventually winding up working closely with Cesar Chavez on behalf of maltreated farm workers, and then with La Raza Legal Center -- with the challenges open to today's graduates.


Gomez showed how it was possible, and vitally important, for single individuals to make major differences in their own lives and the lives of others through sincere and dedicated commitment to honesty and social justice. The audience responded enthusiastically to his passionate speech, to his life story, to his urging the graduates to make a difference in their communities.


That's the kind of energized, focused, progressive policy and speechmaking the Democrats need to fire up their base, and to make us believe in the significant differences between the Democrats and the Republicans.


A huge slice of America is waiting to be energized and moved to action and support. The sooner the Democrats get their act together -- and Howard Dean's 50-state experiment may well pay off in this regard -- the easier it will be to generate the anti-GOP momentum necessary for November and for the race in 2008. Let's get to work.

Copyright 2006, by Bernard Weiner

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, taught at Western Washington University and in California, worked as a writer-editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently is co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).

Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances