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JOAN VENNOCHI

Swinging, missing

THEY STILL don't get it.

Senator John Kerry gives yet another interview about the 2004 election. Sounding like Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens announcing that God told him his injured ankle was ready for the Super Bowl, Kerry suggests God will tell him whether to run for president in 2008. He also continues to insist, "I am not a flip-flopper on anything."

Two days before Iraqis go to the polls to vote in a historic election, Senator Edward M. Kennedy calls for US troops to withdraw from that country; rather than acknowledge that his timing is off, Kennedy keeps the drumbeat going in speeches and interviews.

Harry Reid, the new Senate minority leader, spends so much time talking about himself and Searchlight, Nev., that the fingers itch for the remote before Reid gets to the point of rebutting the president's State of the Union address. Senator Hillary Clinton is embracing faith-based initiatives and antiabortionists, a stretch to the center so unsubtle it fools no one. The party in search of a voice continues to sing off-key.

There must be a way to redefine a party agenda, but Democrats have not figured out how to do it without looking silly. There must be a way to challenge a president, but Democrats have not yet figured out how to do it with dignity. Too often they sound petty and whiny, very much the way Republicans did when they demonized Bill Clinton during his stay in the White House. Voters did not like it from the GOP then, including some voters who did not like Clinton; and they won't like it now, including some voters who don't like George W. Bush.

The points of conflict with the Bush administration are legitimate. The battle is over real ideological differences domestic and foreign versus the GOP's flogging of Clinton over personal transgressions. But the tone is too negative and self-serving. The search for the center and for the Almighty is too manipulative.

The pictures of Iraqis walking to the polls to vote are still fresh. Let them fade into something less inspirational and then raise questions about how long US troops will remain there. Besides, instead of giving speeches, why don't Democrats do some listening -- outside the Boston-New York-Tim Russert axis? Instead of rallying around the past in the form of a statue of FDR, why not talk directly with young people about the future and President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security? Instead of insisting Democrats have values, too, how about showing some by demonstrating grace and a little humility along with political principles?

Yesterday's press statement from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is another example of the Democrats' dilemma. The Bush budget is "fiscally irresponsible, morally irresponsible, and a failure of leadership," she declared.

Even if she is correct, it is difficult to see how that helps the Democrats' cause. The party's practitioners must find a way to get past the standard rhetoric of minority party opposition to win the hearts and minds of voters disinclined to trust them.

Here is something else the Democrats don't get. While Kerry and his competitors for 2008 are talking about God and country and the need to reach out to different constituencies, they are installing Howard Dean as the party's titular head. The same politicians who painted Dean into the left now believe he can lead them to the middle?

Determined to doom his quest for the party's presidential nomination, Dean's fellow Democrats helped depict him as an out-of-control, left-wing peacenik. They helped the media turn him into a cartoon character, one who is now getting ready to take on the job of chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

In their postelection despair, Democratic Party leaders are finally prepared to accept him as the fiscally conservative, socially progressive former governor he actually is. It will take time before the country thinks of him as someone other than a Northeast liberal who lost the Iowa caucus with a yelp.

In the meantime, the country listens for a voice that speaks to them, not at them. It listens for honest debate, not partisan rhetoric. It listens for solutions to complex problems. It listens for someone who is not warming up for the next presidential campaign but addressing issues that affect their lives. It listens for new voices, because the old ones are tired and predictable.

Voters are listening for someone who gets it.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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