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JOAN VENNOCHI

Blurred messages from Democrats

HERE'S THE new Democratic Party slogan: We stand for nothing but victory.

Or, as Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The New York Times: "Some people argue about old Democrats and new Democrats. I'm a Vince Lombardi Democrat. Winning is everything."

Inspirational, isn't it? That should lure those Red State voters to the Democrats' side.

Emanuel, a former senior adviser in the Clinton administration, was chosen to direct the Democrats' effort to recapture the House in the 2006 midterm elections by the House minority leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California,

Pelosi is also encouraging former Representatative Tim Roemer of Indiana to seek to replace Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Roemer, who is Catholic and antiabortion, has a 94 percent rating from the national Right to Life Committee. Pelosi has a 100 percent prochoice voting record, as rated by NARAL, a national organization devoted to a woman's right to choose abortion.

Donna Brazile, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute, describes Pelosi's support for Roemer as a way to illustrate the party's new "big tent" commitment. Said Brazile, via e-mail: "As a party, we have a large tent, but our basic values will remain. The Democratic Party's problem is not what we stand for, as much as how we communicate our values. Roemer's personal views will not alter the Democratic platform on choice."

Put aside the practical matter of how the party plans to communicate values through a prochoice platform and a prolife party chairman. This is a way to win?

Roemer as head of the DNC sounds like a desperate effort to figure out which way the wind is blowing, long after the 2004 wind blew the Democrats away. Where does it leave Democrats when President Bush and his allies work to secure the appointment of Supreme Court justices who are anxious to repeal Roe v. Wade?

It also sounds like a way to institutionalize John Kerry's losing campaign strategy: When it comes to controversial issues, duck. Stand for everything and nothing. Whenever possible, avoid direct answers on issues like war and abortion.

Kerry was the candidate who was in favor of fighting terrorism, but against the way the Bush administration was fighting it. He was the candidate who believed life begins at conception, but supported a woman's right to choose.

As a political strategy in 2004, it did not win the White House for Democrats. Red state voters were not tempted to switch from a candidate who shared their absolute conviction that abortion is wrong or that waging war in Iraq is a valid way to fight terrorism. It seems unlikely to prevail in future presidential elections, either.

It's a cliche that happens to be true: To win support, candidates and parties have to stand for something. They cannot be strictly against the opposition. Even worse, they cannot be for and against what the other side believes in.

Beliefs don't have to be static. They can change. But the change must be part of a coherent rationale.

The party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt does not have to stick with FDR's blueprint, exactly as drawn up by FDR. It does not have to genuflect to every interest group and pass every litmus test a group puts forth.

A Democrat running for office can cross a union picket line when the union is asking for something unreasonable; disagree with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to defy the law and marry homosexuals; and vote against the medical procedure known as partial birth abortion.

But the new position has to be explained with reason, clarity, and courage, not presented as a flailing effort to adjust positions to polling. The middle ground is the ground of reason, not confusion, particularly on so-called values issues.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy had it right yesterday. In remarks prepared for delivery to the National Press Club, Kennedy said, "We cannot move our party or our nation forward under pale colors and timid voices. We cannot become Republican clones. If we do, we will lose again and deserve to lose."

Currently, Democrats like Pelosi and Emanuel sound confused, not reasonable. Indeed, adrift is a word that comes to mind.

Confusion and drift are ways to kill, not grow, a political party. But it appears to be the path of spooked Democrats after the Nov. 2 election loss.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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