Responsibility. Community. Competence.

What the Democrats have?more compelling than any slogan?are some fundamental precepts about how the country should be governed.

The Democrats, in searching for a message, seem to have gotten stuck on a slogan: “Together, America can do better….”—or as the bizarrely-chosen Tim Kaine tweaked it in his post-State-of-the-Union speech refrain, “There is/ a better/ way.” It’s certainly true that the Democrats are in vital need of something crisp and coherent to say about themselves: if the party doesn’t begin to pose some intelligent, thoughtful alternatives to the way things are going in this country it will blow an incredible opportunity to regain some control over the Federal government. But attempting to encode the message into a snappy sound-bite (especially one as bland and generic as this) risks turning into yet another case where the Democrats try to emulate the Republicans and end up Republican-lite.

What the process truly demands is less sloganeering and more rigorous examination. If the Democrats took the time to sift through the essentials of what they hold in common, and to look at the way the most persuasive of their number talk about issues when they’re at the top of their game, they’d realize that the elements of a Democratic vision are present in the underlying concepts they’d discover. The message exists: the task is to define it, not to poll and consult endlessly in order to invent it. The result would be a kind of grid, a framework of basic principles under which many separate issues could be parsed.

It’s a reality that the Democratic Party is larger and more diverse than the Republican Party—something its leading members should emphasize with pride rather than lament. This means that Democrats simply are never going to be as patly disciplined and on-point as the GOP, that mystical apotheosis various party leaders keep pining after. (Or as disciplined and on-point as the GOP used to be—the divisions now among Republicans on subjects like fiscal conservatism and nation-building and government interference in private matters make the Democrats’ big-tent problems look puny by comparison.)

What the Democrats do have uniquely available to them, however, and more usefully than an array of hot-button phrases, are some fundamental precepts about how the country ought to be governed—ideas that are in stark contrast to what the Republicans have to offer, partly because they are ideas, in a way that “lower taxes” and “strong defense” are not. If the Democrats concentrated on these precepts, these key words, and used them as a framework to define their message, they’d be far better off than if they keep grasping for a single slogan.

Responsibility. Community. Competence. The first and last words aren’t traditionally associated with the Democratic Party—indeed they sound downright Republican—but all the better. Anomalously enough, these days you could say that Democrats have essentially become the new Republicans—in that nearly everything valuable at the core of the traditional Republican message has been trashed by the Bush administration and its leaders in Congress, and it’s now the Democrats who are advocating for fiscal discipline, and lack of government interference in private life; for doing things more effectively and less wastefully; for carefully considering before leaping into foreign adventures.

So a closer look would put these concepts—along with a more familiar Democratic emphasis on the irrefutable interdependence of all the country’s citizens—at the center of the Democrats’ message. It then could function not merely as a slogan, but as method of inquiry, a framework with which to analyze actions and policy, both the Republicans’ and their own. Used as the linchpins of such a framework, the words’ sheer unexpectedness would supply a contagious extra jolt.

Here are some examples of how a range of subjects might be parsed under this framework, which is striking and easy to remember, and has the advantage of enlisting the intelligence of the voters—and of the media—by eliciting their participation, instead of further perpetrating the impression (which the repeated use of a single slogan always conveys) of trying to put something over on them.

1) Responsibility. Mutual responsibility between the people and their government. This concept means that citizens pay taxes, serve on juries, serve in the armed forces, vote in elections, obey the law. It means that the government has a parallel obligation to look after its citizens: it doesn’t send them to war under a pretext that’s radically different from the actual reasons; doesn’t tax the middle-class to give to money to the rich; doesn’t give jobs to utterly unqualified people because they’re buddies or contributors; protects the environment of the United States from irreparable degradation and the environment of the world from avoidable catastrophe; doesn’t interfere with the decisions of a family concerning end of life; doesn’t have thousands of homeless sleeping in the streets while CEOs make 800 times the salary of the average worker.

2) Community. This precept calls for a government that recognizes the United States of America as an indivisible entity, something that belongs to all of us and makes demands on all of us; a government that realizes the only way we can genuinely prosper and stay secure is if it respects and pays attention to the theoretical equality and interdependence the country was founded on. It would mean, for instance, that you don’t simultaneously have a health system under which 45 million people are uninsured and drug companies are making profits well beyond any reasonable or historical expectation of return, without restriction of their television ads for proprietary medications, and with a huge new government program that stands to increase their profits even further. It’s this principle that might have suggested to a president with any sense of tradition or history that when a catastrophic storm affects a major region of the country, he not display his priorities by flying to a fundraiser half a continent away, without finding the time to show up at the site of the disaster until days later.

3) Competence. Citizens have the right to expect the same competence and efficiency from their government that they would demand from any corporation they invest in. This means that no matter what a citizen’s individual view of a war, or how righteous the government believes its cause to be, what’s completely unacceptable is for the government to send soldiers off to fight without body armor or reinforced vehicles, or without sufficient troops to carry out the mission, or without training the troops in guerilla warfare when a guerilla war is what they’re heading into, or without sufficient drinking water when they’re deployed in a desert. It means that people in the government should be prepared and qualified to undertake a coordinated job of disaster relief. Applying this concept in a way the Democrats haven’t done, very notably it should mean that you don’t impose a national education policy—a policy that alters instructional techniques and uses unfunded mandates to suck the money away from local school systems—on the basis of a set of statistics drawn from one sole state’s experience, and flawed at that: specifically, public school graduation rates in Texas in the 90’s, the “objective” premise of “No Child Left Behind,” which turned out later to have been derived without the inclusion of drop-outs in the computations. It certainly means you don’t prattle about homeland security while leaving ports and nuclear plants undefended. Here’s a place where Democrats, instead of cowering in fear that a Republican mention of “national security” will trump anything they have to say on any subject, could float a slogan emphasizing what a genuinely strong national security and homeland defense would consist of: “Minus competence, there is no strength.”

Given the current examples of the emergency conditions that the launch of the appallingly badly-planned Medicare drug program has precipitated in state after state; or the uprecedented number of recent resignations and retirements among the professional staff of FEMA; or the recent news about the astonishing millions of reconstruction dollars that the Provisional Authority “lost track of” in Iraq (presumably, in the case of Robert J. Stein, who’d been put in charge of $82 million of it, at least partly because his Pentagon background check had missed his former conviction for felony fraud), it seems fair to assume that opportunities to discuss this issue will continue to abound.

In my opinion, it’s the focus on competence—the Bush administration’s lack of it and the Republican Congress’s willful disregard for enforcing it—that will give the Democrats the strongest traction of all. In late December, NPR’s Linda Wertheimer interviewed a group of “conservative Democrats” in Stephens, Wisconsin—people who have reliably voted Democratic, but who skew conservative on social issues, a category said to represent 15% of the national electorate. And to a person, responsibility and competence were what they talked about in detail as what mattered most to them in politics.

In view of the importance these matters hold for the voters, even corruption and cronyism, as successful as they’ve been as topics for the Democrats so far—infinitely more successful, say, than the government’s spying on its own citizens, which for maximum effect probably ought to be discussed less as a civil liberties issue than as a chilling reminder of the “snooping” of the Communist regimes we denounced for so many decades—need eventually to be talked about in the context of of their larger implications. (Partly because, inevitably, there will be Democrats who turn out to be less than simon-pure.) As deplorable as corruption and cronyism are in their own right, what they’re a sign of additionally in the Republican culture is an intrinsic, truly shocking disrespect—even contemptuousness—for the very process of government and for its rules and standards.

The radical rightwingers who’ve taken over the Republican party don’t really regard government as a necessary element in society—except when it financially benefits them. Therefore it isn’t important to them whether the people charged with governing are qualified and competent or have integrity or not. People who fundamentally don’t believe in government will always have a hard time running the government well. This is the larger, farther-reaching aspect of corruption issue that the Democrats ought to call attention to.

But in fact, the great virtue of using a framework, rather than a single slogan-like message, is that it doesn’t limit discussion to one or two subjects, and it doesn’t keep the discussion one-dimensional. Almost everything that matters to Democrats can be examined under this grid—in all three categories. The recklessly-embarked-upon, horrendously ill-planned war in Iraq, which affects so disproportionately the kind of families rarely in contact with people inside the Beltway; the scandalous, dizzying transformation of the Federal surplus into record-setting deficits; the premise that whatever the government gives to the wealthy is an investment in the economy, whereas what it gives to the needy is waste that cries out to be cut: all these bear being looked at it through every aspect of such a framework, and the national conversation will be the richer for it.

Because there’s something about recognizing an aspect of something you hadn’t thought about before—the aha! factor—that imprints on people more effectively and compellingly than any slogan or any laundry list of issues. By encouraging voters to analyze for themselves the ways in which Republican behavior falls short of lofty Republican rhetoric, and how it diverges from the principles of government that we all, Republicans and Democrats, theoretically subscribe to—as well as by explaining (as they’ll have to do, party out of power or not) how their own policies would conform more closely to these shared precepts—the Democrats will make more of an impact than they’ll be able to with even the most sonorous of catch-phrases.