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Democrats fight historical labels

By Candy Crowley
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On the cusp of an election that could overturn the Republican majority on Capitol Hill, I jokingly asked a senior Democratic aide whether he had ordered new business cards to reflect majority status.

"Don't underestimate our ability to blow it," he said.

There is a reason Democrats are on edge. They have lost so many elections where it seemed they were running with the wind, the phenomenon is known in political circles as Democrats "embracing their inner-defeatist." (Watch the 'wuss factor is real' -- 1:39 Video)

Herewith the proof: Democrats have been the minority on Capitol Hill for most of the past 12 years.

When George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009, Democrats will have occupied the Oval Office just 12 of the previous 40 years.

In the past two election cycles, Al Gore and John Kerry lost the entire South and most of the Midwest and West.

As part of our election series "Broken Government," CNN asked self-identified Democrats around Miami, Florida, Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California, how they view their party. It was word association, "I say Democrat, you say ... " Not scientific, but instructive.

Here is some of what we heard:

• "Disorganized"

• "Afraid to take a stand"

• "Not giving us anything better to look at"

• "A little soft"

Such views were so widespread, we began to key in on a single question: What is wrong with Democrats?

'Wuss factor'

We didn't interview a single Republican for the documentary. We found four main players and a supporting cast of top Democratic operatives to help us with the answers. (See what Democrats say about their own party)

It basically boiled down to a political history through which Democrats are seen as weak on defense, dismissive of rural and Southern culture and out of touch with white middle-class voters.

Some of the problems are more than three decades old. That took us to Mitchell, South Dakota, for a visit with George McGovern, the Democrats' 1972 presidential nominee.

McGovern ran for president with a call for an immediate pullout from Vietnam. He was tagged as weak on communism and lost the election.

A bona fide World War II hero who won the Distinguished Flying Cross, McGovern said maybe he should have played up that part of his resume.

"I know the term 'McGovernite' is used as a swear word," he told CNN. "So be it."

The Democratic Party still struggles to shake "the wuss factor."

Think: Max Cleland, the former senator from Georgia who lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam. He was defeated in his 2002 re-election bid in a brutal campaign that featured an opposition ad questioning his commitment to protecting the nation.

We caught up with Cleland to reflect on his loss and his party. Things will be different in this election, he promised.

"We're not going to let them get away with it," he said. "This time we're fighting back."

Forgetting rural voters

Also plaguing Democrats is a huge exodus of white middle-class voters, many of them suburban and rural Americans.

In 2000, George Bush held a 22-point margin over Al Gore in the rural vote. Four years later, John Kerry lost rural America by 19 points.

This hole in the party took us to rural Virginia, outside Roanoke, for a visit with David "Mudcat" Saunders, an affable Democratic consultant.

"I love the Democratic Party, but I'm a rural American first, a Democrat second," he said.

He has advised a number of politicians about winning the hearts and minds of southern and rural America.

Listening to bluegrass music, building a deer stand and practicing target shooting with his bow -- all while he talked with us -- Saunders said Democratic presidential candidates have failed to respect the culture of rural America, driving voters into the Republican Party.

Keeping it simple

Brian Schweitzer is the kind of Democrat that Saunders could love. He is the bolo-tie-boots-and-jeans-wearing governor of Montana who rarely goes anywhere without his dog, Jag.

Schweitzer is a rock star in Democratic circles because he won in a state that has voted Republican in nine of the past 10 presidential elections.

As we accompanied Schweitzer and Jag on a flight around the state, the governor laid out why his party keeps losing. He thinks Democrats nationally have been long on policy papers and faint of pulse.

"A lot of folks aren't going to spend the time that it takes to understand these complicated political issues," he told me. "You have to have a look and a feel, so that people say, 'Yeah, I am comfortable with Brian, and I'd be comfortable with his decisions.' "

Certainly Democrats know the problems, and there are plenty of signs they've figured out how to go about fixing them.

But nearly every Democrat we spoke with agreed that while 2006 may be a banner year for their party, it will say little about whether the party has gotten itself together.

As a former Gore adviser put it: "Any success we have in 2006 is largely going to result from the failure of the Republicans in Washington and the success of individual candidates who identify themselves despite the disadvantages of running under the Democratic label."

The real test is 2008.

In July, Sen. Harry Reid (at lectern) and other Democrats called for a "New Direction for America."


CNN's "Broken Government" explores all branches of government this week at 8 and 11 p.m. ET. The topics: Tuesday, the Democratic Party; Thursday, the power of the presidency; Friday, the GOP and the conservative base; Saturday, the judicial branch.



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