The poster was just a few steps from the door of the Maui Beach Hotel’s Elleair Rainbow Room. Big and colorful, it depicted a laughing donkey riding a surfboard while a volcano erupted in the background. Across the top and bottom were the words “Blue Hawaii” and “Keep it Blue,” respectively, with “Riding the Pipeline to Democratic Paradise” emblazoned over the image. It cost $15.
It was a strange thing to see walking into a discussion on the future of the painfully weak Democratic Party. As most people who don’t dwell in caves know by now, the national party got its ass kicked in the November, 2004 presidential and congressional elections.
But on July 5, the day after the nation celebrated its 229th birthday, the party faithful gathered at a luncheon sponsored by the Maui County Democratic Party. About a hundred people paid $25 a head to eat a good spread of beef, mahi, salad, chow mein, rice, steamed vegetables and lots of pie while listening to California congressman Mike Honda (D, San Jose), who also works as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The crowd gave Honda three standing ovations, including one before he’d even said a word. Honda spoke for about 20 minutes, then spent another 20 minutes answering questions.
Honda walked to the lectern to do two things. First, make sure the Hawai’i Democrats—who actually strengthened their hold over the state legislature in 2004—understood that the national party would not take their organization for granted. Second, and more importantly, he had to tell local activists that the national party was reforming itself in the wake of its poor showing against incumbent President George W. Bush.
“You cannot capture the White House without grass roots,” he said, quoting party chairman Howard Dean. “We need to invest in local folks.”
While Honda spoke of how the Republican Party is ruining health care, Medicare, Social Security and the federal budget, he steered clear of any discussion of the war in Iraq. Indeed, it’s doubtful he would have said a word about it—the single most important and divisive issue in the U.S. today—had someone not asked about it.
“Are the actions of President Bush in Iraq impeachable?” asked one attendee.
At first, Honda wavered. He said the Democratic leadership is “trying to be logical and taking it step by step.” Then he argued that the media was falling down on the job by refusing to write about things like the “Downing Street Memo”—the 2002 British secret service report that seems to show Bush had long planned to conquer Iraq. But then, almost as an afterthought, Honda said something new about whether Bush’s pre-war lies constituted a high crime.
“My personal opinion?” he asked himself rhetorically. “Yeah.”
The remark drew the crowd’s sharpest and heartiest applause of the afternoon and shows that at the grass roots level, the war in Iraq is where the Democrats need to confront Bush.
It’s a welcome change. During the 2004 campaign, the war rarely came up. When it did, Bush repeated a mantra about staying the course while Senator John Kerry fumbled statements about getting the facts. In the end, more people in the country opted for Bush’s certainty—mindless though it was—than Kerry’s ambivalence.
It was a dangerous calculation for the Democrats: ignore the war—and the huge group of party loyalists who think the invasion and occupation are insane—or risk looking weak in the face of Republican authority. Not only didn’t it work, but it also ended up alienating Democrats who wanted an actual Iraq alternative to Bush’s everything-is-fine rhetoric.
In the July 4, 2005 New Yorker, George Packer wrote about how this line of thinking infuriated Democrat Chris Frosheiser of Des Moines, a man whose son Kurt died in the war’s first year.
“[V]ery little was said to me, a loyal Democrat, by leading Democrats, about Kurt’s service,” Frosheiser emailed Packer on Aug. 28, 2004. “I had expressed an interest in talking to [Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John] Edwards about Kurt’s service. It was never arranged. I thought someone like Edwards should speak to someone who lost a child in combat… John Kerry did send a card to both Jeanie and me, but I really think there is an ill-at-ease sense among activist Democrats about the ‘warriors’ because of opposition to the war.”
People like Frosheiser are exactly the “grass roots” party officials like Honda need to listen to. The war, now and four years from now, is where the fight is. Until party leaders see that, nothing will change in Washington. MTW