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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 February 2006, 12:24 GMT
Democrats fail to find a message
By Justin Webb
BBC News, Washington

President Bush's popularity ratings have plummeted, but why, asks Justin Webb, is it that the opposition, the Democrats, are not surfing the opinion polls, capitalising on the Republicans' misfortunes and preparing to take over Congress when the election comes in the autumn?

Car bumper sticker
Car bumper politics are making a statement across America

In any list of America's greatest contributions to world culture - the kazoo, the electric guitar, drive-in fast food etc - space should be found, in my view, for an invention deeply ingrained in the life of this nation.

An invention on show to almost all Americans, every day.

That invention is the car bumper sticker.

And, in case you think you have seen them elsewhere in the world, let me just tell you that you have not.

At least not on the scale, and not of the sophistication of the American model.

Bumper stickers are a treasure trove of American free speech, expressing opinions of every stripe, on every subject.

Political message

Some are just plain weird.

A perfectly normal looking Chrysler in front of me the other day had "cops smell funny" emblazoned on the boot.

The stickers which have caught my attention and which I think are part of a noteworthy political phenomenon here are those that say, in bold letters, 're-defeat George Bush'
You can find entire religious credos summed up on the back of a Honda.

My favourite is: "Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church."

And then, of course, there is politics.

"Work harder - millions on welfare need your money," I saw the other day on a pick-up truck in the Nevada desert.

But where I live, in the suburbs of Washington DC - and I am getting to the point now - the political messages tend to be the ranting of the disappointed American left.

"Somewhere in Texas there's a village missing an idiot," is a pithy example.

"It'll be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber" is a more plaintive, and frankly more difficult to read example.

For or against?

But the stickers which have caught my attention and which I think are part of a noteworthy political phenomenon here are those that say, in bold letters, "Re-defeat George Bush".

Al Gore
Al Gore won more votes but lost the 2000 presidential race
These, of course, refer to the election of 2000 in which more Americans voted for Al Gore, but which was awarded to Mr Bush by the Supreme Court after that voting snafu in Florida.

The stickers were part of the campaign of 2004, but were answered, it seems to me, by the result of that election.

The nation plainly elected Mr Bush - he won more than 50% of the vote - something Bill Clinton never managed.

So why is it that Democrats can't move on? The answer is that they don't know where to go.

On the Iraq war, for instance.

Are they for it or against it?

When it goes badly they are against it, but in the few months last year when elections were first held in Iraq they were rather for it.

Society's ills

The schizophrenia is epitomised by the choice of an anti-war Iraq veteran to run for a winnable senate seat in Ohio who has now been forced to pull out of the race because the party bigwigs got cold feet.

The Democrats need a message and a new way of communicating that message to a mass audience. They have neither
Democrats do not have a message on the key issues of our time.

Or, more precisely, they have several mutually exclusive messages.

Why is this?

Of course the American left has always had its fissiparous tendencies.

The old joke goes: I am not a member of any organised political party, I'm a Democrat.

But actually its bedrock was always pretty solid.

From World War II until the Reagan revolution the establishment in the US was socially progressive.

There was a belief that there was such a thing as society, and its ills could and should be tackled.

Changing world

Now, there are plenty of Americans who still hold those views, but the arteries which once fed them into the nation's vital organs, have been clogged or cut.

The American left have faded away

The universities do not have the power they did, professorial authority is less respected.

Most importantly, the worlds of entertainment and news (which used to pipe a vaguely left-wing message into the nation's homes) have been blown to bits by technological changes which render them powerless.

There are 600 channels on my television. I never watch any of them.

But if I did the chances that my neighbour has watched the same thing (particularly when you add the broadband internet options now available) have shrunk to virtually nil in the past few years.

The Democrats need a message and a new way of communicating that message to a mass audience. They have neither.

And do not be fooled by those who say this malaise is structural, at this stage of the electoral cycle there isn't a presidential candidate etc.

No, it is more than that. The American left has faded away.

Only their bumper stickers remain, like cockroaches after a nuclear holocaust.

"Re-defeat George Bush," they whine. Not knowing, not caring that the world has changed.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 25 February, 2006, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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