By contributor
updated 9/28/2005 1:00:48 PM ET 2005-09-28T17:00:48

With George W. Bush’s presidency mired in the muck of hurricanes and doubts about the war, you’d think Democrats would be bursting with energy, eagerly expecting to regain power. But, in a roomful of well-connected Democrats the other night, I was struck by how gloomy they were. They can’t stand Bush, but didn’t have much faith in their own party’s prospects.

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Why? Well, some of the reasons they articulated are short-term and tactical; some are purely personal; others more philosophical; and I have a few myself:

Supreme divisions
The president’s nomination of John Roberts was a ten strike, knocking apart whatever united front the Dems might have been able to muster on judicial issues. However genial and cerebral he may be, Roberts also is a board-certified conservative, blessed by the James Dobsons of the world.

No one doubted that at least a few Red State Democrats would vote for him, but the defection of Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont (no less), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee , was a stunner – and a demoralizing one for the party faithful.

Democrats are vowing to remain unified over Bush’s NEXT pick – which almost certainly will be a woman, a Hispanic or both. So the party could find itself in a tough political position once again.

Lack of star power
These things go in cycles, I guess, and it’s hard to be glamorous when you are in the minority in both houses of Congress. That said, it’s incontestably true that the Democrats simply aren’t blessed with much charisma in the leadership ranks — unless you consider Angelina Jolie a Democrat.

The GOP has Rudy, Colin, Arnold, McCain and Condi – just to name a few: big, bold, controversial characters. Good copy if nothing else. The more or less official roster of titular Democratic leaders includes Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean and 2004 nominee John Kerry. ‘Nuff said.

Hillary love and fear
The purported inevitability of Hillary Rodham Clinton excites some Democrats, but deeply depresses some others, both inside and outside the Beltway.

Her forcefulness and talent — not to mention her well-oiled money machine — bring respect from party insiders and outsiders alike. But there is an undercurrent of unease about the Back to the Future quality of another Clinton candidacy. Do we really want to relive the Clinton Years? Under their breath, even many Clinton acolytes tend to say “NO.”

A house divided
Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union is a brilliant agitator, and he has all but single-handedly crippled the AFL-CIO by taking his union and several others into a new group called the Change to Win Federation.

Stern’s rationale, in part, is that the Democrats are taking rank-and-file workers for granted. Does that mean Change to Win will consider endorsing Republicans (as the Teamsters, another member of the Stern Gang, sometimes do)? No wonder Dems are gloomy.

War waffling
I spent some time with Cindy Sheehan the other day, and I was struck by her impatience with the Democrats.

“Why are they so afraid?” she wanted to know. She had just met with Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton, and described both as cautious in their statements, with Reid saying that the Dems “had no choice” but to push for a drawdown of U.S. troops and Hillary remaining largely mum.

Frankly, I was surprised that Reid and Clinton met with her at all. The Dems are afraid of their own shadow on the Iraq war. Most of their leadership voted twice for the conflict — the authorizing resolution and the money to support it. And none of them has come out, flat out, to say that they made a mistake.

Do they believe in the aims of the war or not? If they fault the execution of the war, precisely what would they do differently now? The silence is thundering.

Missed opportunities
And then there are all those issues that got swept away -- and swept off the front pages -- by the storms: the Karl Rove/CIA leak investigation; the FDA controversy about over-the-counter sales of the "Morning After Pill," and the subsequent resignations from the agency; the on-again, off-again debate about re-jiggering Social Security; and even the investigation of what went wrong with FEMA's hurricane response. All were juicy issues for the Democrats to dig into, but the opposition party failed to muster a united voice.

Vision and passion
I led my NEWSWEEK piece with an anecdote about President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. When a huge hurricane hit New Orleans that year, he hustled down to Louisiana, and was on the scene within a day, offering the full resources of the federal government to help get the region back on its feet.

I thought it was an instructive contrast to Bush’s too-little, too-late personal response to Katrina. But the anecdote contains a lesson for Democrats, too: LBJ stood for a big idea — the healing power of government. He was in the mist of his Great Society presidency.

What Big Idea would a Democratic presidency be about? No one seems to know, which is perhaps the main reason why the party faithful in that room seemed so lost.

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