Talking to Joe and Ilene

Last night Charlie Rose did an hourlong interview with Chuck Schumer. This may come as a surprise to some, but I have always liked Schumer. He is charming, focused and well spoken. He's obviously a bit to the left of me, but I respect a guy who is sensible, true to his own convictions and works hard. I also like a Democrat who can go on Fox News, as Schumer has, and argue his positions with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye.

Schumer is out with a book that he is promoting as a strategy for a lasting Democrat majority in Congress and victory for Hillary in '08. The book uses a fictional couple from Massapequa, Long Island (or in the parlance of the locals, "Massapequer") as foils for his arguments. Ostensibly "Joe and Ilene"*are average voters with whom a Democrat message must resonate. To his credit, Schumer says that Democrats need to stop speaking down to their voters, and offer Joe and Ilene solutions rather than handouts. He also says that Democrats cannot appeal to average voters on every issue, but can speak to them directly (not through the liberal media) and try to convince them that they have "more, better solutions" than the Republicans.

Schumer rightly recognizes that 2008 could very well be the type of seminal election year that 1932 and 1980 were. In those elections, the electoral center shifted one way or the other and caused a sea change in American politics. Schumer believes that if the Democrats can focus their message, much as Bush did in the last election, the Democrats can take back the government.

But this is where things start to get difficult for the Democrats. In 2004, Bush built his message around the war (security), taxes (the economy) and gay marriage (family values). It was simple, concise, and comprehensive. For the Democrats, Schumer suggests something called the "50% Solution" - a simple message that packages all the Democrat initiatives into a conversation about "50% improvements". Rather than talking about complex plans to nationalize health care, Schumer says Democrats should promise to reduce cancer deaths by 50%. He offers similar metrics for improving schools and winning the Iraq War.

I'm not sure that message will work. It's a bit confusing and somewhat arbitrary. It reminds me a bit of the Al Gore effort to improve government performance, which in the end didn't resonate much with the voters. It is meant to appeal to an American populace that has become familiar with management metrics, and is designed to demonstrate that Democrats are the party of "solutions". But it borders on being wonkish and hard to comprehend. Joe and Ilene may nod off after the discussion moves from reducing cancer deaths to the inevitable arguments about the NIH budget.

Hillary has a good chance of winning in 2008 simply because American voters like to give both parties a chance to run the government. But Schumer rightly recognizes that Congress is another matter. There, Republicans have a natural advantage, one that they effectively blew by losing focus on the reasons they were given the majority - small government and a strong national defense. They got complacent with power very quickly, lost sight of their values, and were thrown out. Schumer and others know that the Republicans can easily regain power if they simply focus on their key strengths.

It's a harder Democrats in Congress. They have a hard left fringe that is much less attuned to the wants and needs of the average voter. Schumer's effort to create a "big tent" Democrat party will face fierce resistance from his base. To some extent, this is the Demorats' own fault. They have demogogued issues like abortion and civil liberties for so long that they've created an intolerance in their core voters. Now, when they need some flexibility to appeal to people less obsessed with politics, there's an inflexibility in their midst that limits their policy options.

Frankly, I wish Schumer and the Democrats could formulate a message that does appeal to Joe and Ilene, while not alienating the Democrat base. After six years of the silly left speaking for the Democrats, I would be happy to see a Democrat Party that takes a more rational stance on America's place in the world. If the world, including our terrorist enemies, sees a Democrat Party that is committed to a strong and effective response to our global challenges, America's place in the world will certainly improve.

I'm pulling for Chuck Schumer. But I'm not sure the 50% solution is going to be a message that resonates with Joe and Ilene.

* Perfect names. Having worked on Long Island, it seemed to me that every other guy was named Joe and Ilene was almost as common as Mary.