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Party Problems

01/25/05 12:00AM By Libby Sternberg
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(HOST) Commentator Libby Sternberg thinks that Republicans in Vermont and Democrats around the country have something rather surprising in common.


(STERNBERG) After the November elections, many conservatives I spoke with had the same reaction: joy over the victories in Congress and in the presidency, and befuddlement over the losses in the Vermont State House. While, nationally, Democrats are licking their wounds and scouring their souls for the keys to their defeats, Vermont Republicans must surely be engaging in similar self-examinations.

The Democrats' national challenge was laid out well in a recent New York Times column by David Brooks. Some Democrats, Brooks reported, want to steal a page from Newt Gingrich when he successfully built a Republican majority during the Clinton years by mounting fierce opposition to policies such as the Clinton's wide-ranging health care plan. But Brooks points out a flaw in this strategy. Clinton won in 1992, he notes, with just 43 percent of the vote. So when Gingrich began his strategy, he already had a sizeable group of the public with him in spirit, if not in the voting booth. What Gingrich did, Brooks says, was turn that "potential conservative majority" into a voting majority.

National Democrats today are not in that enviable position. They don't have a majority with them, if election numbers are a guide. And by becoming the party of opposition, they could turn off the very people they need to ultimately win over.

This brings us to the Republican dilemma in Vermont. In many ways, their situation is akin to that suffered by the national Democrats. They have no "potential conservative majority" in the Green Mountain State. The electorate is mostly Democratic and mostly liberal. If Republicans use an aggressive opposition strategy, they are likely to turn off moderate and liberal voters and be perceived as mere obstructionists.

But haven't Republicans in Vermont been successful in the past with opposition strategies? Well, to a point, yes. After the passage of Act 60 and civil unions, Republicans won victories around the state as an angry electorate acted on the sentiments they expressed in public opinion polls. But those GOP gains were quickly whittled away in subsequent elections, most notably the one in November.

Even Newt Gingrich realized vigorous opposition isn't enough for sustainable victories. Along with his scorched-earth tactics, he offered the Contract with America, a list of policy proposals designed to show that Republicans had progressive - with a small "p" - ideas and just needed the opportunity to implement them.

Nationally, Democrats need to learn that saying "no" isn't enough. At the state level, perhaps Republicans need to embrace the same lesson.

This is Libby Sternberg in Rutland.

Libby Sternberg is an author and freelance writer who's active in education issues. She spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.
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