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Democrats Defend Opposition-Party Role

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Democrats Defend Opposition-Party Role

Democrats Defend Opposition-Party Role

Democrats Defend Opposition-Party Role

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Democrats are often made the butt of jokes when it comes to an alleged "lack of ideas." But some in the party say that the truth is, they take their role as the opposition party very seriously.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Frustrated and out of power, the Democrats have been doing a lot of soul searching lately. They've formed think tanks, hired consultants, taken polls and convened focus groups. It's all part of an effort to develop a policy and communications infrastructure similar to the kind of network Republicans built when they were out of power. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: When Illinois Senator Barack Obama appeared at the off the record Gridiron Dinner in Washington recently, he's reported to have stood up and said, some people say the Democrats don't stand for anything. That's just not true. Democrats do stand for anything. This morning, at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Obama was one of a group of Democratic luminaries who unveiled the latest entry in the effort to help Democrats define just what they do stand for. This one is called the Hamilton Project, named after the nation's first Treasury secretary. Robert Rubin, who was President Clinton's Treasury secretary, said the project's economic policy papers on issues like restoring fiscal balance, public education and retirement security could help.

ROBERT E: If the Democrats were to get control of the administration we would hope that more and more people, as they looked at this, would decide that this is basically where this country has to be in terms of its threshold place. So this is the beginning of, from our point of view at least, a long-run process.

LIASSON: And there are other efforts to come up with policies and messages that work. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, a potential presidential candidate in 2008, has a new website. It's called OurTenWords.com.

THOMAS VILSACK: Democrats need to do a better job of succinctly defining what Democrats are and what it means to be a Democrat. And someone suggested that we do it in ten words or less, because Republicans seem to have a very good ability to do that. So we decided to throw it out to the world to see what kind of recommendations and ideas we'd come up with.

LIASSON: In the next two weeks, a panel of judges will pick ten finalists, and then, a la American Idol, the public will vote on the ten words they think best define the Democratic Party's message. Here's Vilsack's own entry.

VILSACK: Meaningful opportunity, personal security, individual responsibility, sustainable communities, progressive alliances.

LIASSON: Not much of a battle cry, although it's certainly hard to argue with those values. Vilsack says 5,000 people have submitted their ten words to the website, but not everyone in the Democratic community is enthusiastic. As a matter of fact, this is the kind of thing that really bugs liberal Democratic strategist and blogger David Sirota.

DAVID SIROTA: Any time a politician publicly asks for the public's help in defining the Democratic Party's message, it means that politician is acknowledging that he and the party in general doesn't really know what it stands for.

LIASSON: Sirota thinks what's more useful are new policies that pursue specific goals like universal health care, tax fairness or retirement security. And that's what happened recently on a web site called SinceSlicedBread.com. It's run by SEIU, the service employees union, whose president is Andy Stern.

ANDREW STERN: After spending 10 years in Washington, D.C. and being enormously frustrated that the issues that most Americans face every day when they get up in the morning aren't discussed amongst our elected officials, I felt it was important to hear what Americans are thinking about their lives and how to solve their problems.

LIASSON: Stern's union put some real money behind the SinceSlicedBread contest.

STERN: We offered a $100,000 first prize, two $50,000 runner-up prizes to the people who basically had the best idea since sliced bread.

LIASSON: The winner was a proposal about renewable energy and jobs. Other entries included a plan to tie congressional pay raises to increases in the minimum wage. Stern plans to publish them all in a book, and that won't be the only book Democrats and their allies may be reading soon. This fall, Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will publish his own book. It's called The Plan, and it will be another attempt to define the Democratic Party for itself and for voters.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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