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Democrats in search of optimism and ideas

WASHINGTON – Okay, so the Dems didn’t quite start their revolution in San Diego. Their candidate railed against the corruption of Washington – logically enough, since the race was to replace the disgraced Randy “Duke” Cunningham. The Republicans were forced to pour in $5 million and hundreds of staffers to defend a House seat in a famously conservative district. The Democrats can take heart from the fact that the race was close. But they also should learn a lesson, which is that talking about Washington — even if you’re attacking the immorality of the place — isn’t the only strategy, or even the main one.

For Democrats hoping to claw their way back to national power, this is the strategic paradox: to regain control of the political Establishment, they must forget about it.

Democrats aren’t likely to find leaders and answers here in the capital, and can’t expect the traditional media to light the way. Instead, Democrats need to be a “states rights” party in a new sense, shunning the sclerotic political machinery of the capital for the new ideas, programs and tactics sprouting in the states — and in the digital netroots of America.

Americans want optimism and ideas, and are tired of hearing about the capital.

If the country needs another new infusion of outside-the-beltway blood — and it always does — Dems have to figure out a way to supply it.

That’s my sense of things, bolstered by reading two new books. In “The Defining Moment,” my friend and NEWSWEEK colleague Jonathan Alter vividly recreates the dramatic rise of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his first months as president in the midst of a grave national crisis.

In “Crashing the Gate,” Markos Moulitsas Zuniga — better known as Daily Kos — teams up with fellow digital activist Jerome Armstrong to sketch the outlines of a new, state-and-net based mainstream Democratic Party they hope will rise to power.

The combined bottom line is: the Democrats need to think outside the box.

Alter’s ostensible subject is FDR. But he doubles on the political beat as a media writer, and perhaps that’s why he takes time in his book to sketch a damning picture of the out-to-lunch journalistic establishment of FDR’s day. They were desperately wrong about Roosevelt and the country he had been chosen to lead.

Based in Washington and New York City, they dismissed FDR as a preppy hack from Albany, lacking the necessary brains and patient eye for detail to end the Depression. Some even thought that America needed a good dose of dictatorial leadership (it was the fashion in Europe). The drum major of this benighted opinion army was none other than Walter Lippmann, the most esteemed columnist of his day or, arguably, any day. He WAS the Establishment.

And he was dead wrong on all counts.

What the country needed, it turned out, was the shrewd sociability and steady cheer of a man who had faced adversity — his polio — and who knew how to build political coalitions and pour his sunny demeanor into the new mass communications media of the day. The Man from Albany turned out to be the Man for America.

Moulitsas and Armstrong bring the communications story up to date. The most successful presidents tend to be those who master the new media forms of their time: the letter-and-pamphlet writing era of Washington and Jefferson, the speechmaking-telegraph days of Lincoln, FDR and radio and newsreels, JFK and Reagan and television. Now the net awaits its own Great Communicator.

Kos & Co. think that person will come from, or at least feel a kinship to, rural America. It fits with their neo-Jeffersonian view of things — and their disdain for the soft-money me-toosim they see stifling the party in Washington. Not surprisingly, Kos’s co-author is an advisor to former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, now running hard for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Virginian fits the Kos bill: a NASCAR fan that got rich as an early investor in the cell phone business.

But perhaps the netroots’ favorite avatar in waiting is Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana. In their eyes he’s the rootin’-tootin’ real deal, a rancher turned politician who believes in government activism set free from traditional liberal thinking and interest-group methods. This week a protégé of Schweitzer’s, a rancher named Jon Tester, won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Kos happily noted that Tester comes from “the middle of nowhere” — Big Sandy, Montana — and provided a link to a Yahoo map to prove it.

So that’s the place to start from in this new political era: not Washington, but the middle of nowhere.