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
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.
THE WRONG SPEECH AT THE WRONG PLACE
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
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
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.
AN ANTI-GLOBALIZATION HOTBED
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
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
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
LEARN HOW TO FIGHT THE BEAST
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
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).