Virginia Democrats don’t have an overriding message. So what? Why does it really matter? What matters, leaders will tell you, is that Dems raise lots of money because you can’t win without money.

No, alas, you can’t. But if you spend it on the wrong things, it’s money wasted. Candidates don’t live or die on whether they put out eight or 10 direct mail pieces. If they can only send two, then yeah, they’re at a disadvantage. But all a candidate needs is enough money. In the Poisson campaign, one will look at VPAP and see that he raised as much as Dick Black and spent as much. But most of that money was raised in the last month when many donors hoped on board what they saw as a winning cause. The election was won, however, in September and October when Dave’s communication strategy painted Black as so focused on social issues that he never addressed transportation or education issues. Guess what the folks in Loudoun County really cared about? In fact, Dave will probably admit that we probably spent too much in the last days of the campaign, simply because we could. Complaints from votes about too many calls and too much mail indicate that even your friends have a tolerance limit.

The House and Senate caucuses have embarked on a fundraising drive. Bully for them. But to what ends?

Ninety percent of voters go to the polls perhaps knowing not which candidate they will vote for but which lever they’ll pull. (OK, the image is out of date, but you get my point.) People vote party unless given a compelling reason to vote for the other guy. Just being the other guy may be enough. 2006 could test that theory, although there are reports that Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has a platform in the works to be delivered in the fall. That and voter frustration might be enough to help Dems win back Congress. But it won’t be enough to beat John McCain in ’08. In fact, if the Dems succeed in November, they have the tough task of governing in a way that moves voters into their presidential column against a very tough and respected opponent.

In Virginia, we’ve seen the downsides of having only a Democratic governor. He can achieve some good. Warner’s tax hikes were welcomed but let’s face it, they were modest. It wasn’t tax reform; it was a small hike and tinkering around the edges. And we still have abhorrent social legislation getting passed with support from both moderate and conservative Republicans and weak-kneed Democrats.

And we have too many House Republican leaders who aren’t even challenged. As Poisson proved, nobody is invincible. But it’ll take more than money.

The first reason to develop a coherent statewide message is not about selling the candidate. It’s about selling potential candidates. If Dems are to find good candidates (and good candidates trump boatloads of cash any day), they must sell them the Democratic vision. It’s much easier to find candidates when you’re the majority. When you’re the minority, you need to convince potential candidates that they will be joining a party that will soon be the majority. Who wants to get elected only to be thwarted legislatively, which is what’s happening to Democrats now?

Many good candidates may not win on their first attempt. But that losing effort may well be the first nail in the coffin of entrenched incumbents. Dems need to mount campaigns in every race. That discussion is going on at the national level, with Howard Dean and Emanuel battling each other.

In a heated meeting last week, Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, challenged Mr. Dean on his 50-state program, saying it was undercutting Democratic hopes of taking back the House and the Senate, Democrats said. They warned that Mr. Dean was squandering an opportunity by sending money to parties in states that are a long way from becoming Democratic.

… Mr. Dean’s program of sending money to state parties reflects his criticism of party leaders for having only focused on a handful of states. One politically practical result is that he has strong support among many state chairmen.
“The governor feels very strongly that the Democratic Party needs infrastructure to make us competitive in every state,” said his spokesman, Stacie Paxton.

I agree with Dean. And I think it needs to happen in Virginia’s state races. There are two election cycles before redistricting. Even if Dems lose against incumbents in ’07, they have another election to capture the 11 in the House or four in the Senate necessary to have input into the 2011 redistricting. And that’s key in the long-term. (More on that later.)

Developing a program now that identifies the issues that will resonate with independent and moderate Republicans is the first step. I was told by one state Dem that first we must test the ideas in polls. I agree you test the ideas, but not in polls. Leadership isn’t divined through polls.

Some of my best friends are consultants. They tend to be the most entertaining people in the political community: eccentric, fanatic, creative, violently verbal and deeply hilarious—the sort of people who sat in the back of the room in high school and shot spitballs at the future politicians sitting up front. But their impact on politics has been perverse. Rather than make the game more interesting, they have drained a good deal of the life from our democracy. They have become specialists in caution, literal reactionaries—they react to the results of their polling and focus groups; they fear anything they haven’t tested.

In his book “Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You’re Stupid,” Joe Klein argues that consultants who live and die by polls have snuffed vision and leadership out of political life. He cites John Kerry’s refusal to address the Abu Graib scandal because focus groups indicated people were willing to give Bush a pass. Can you imagine Bobby Kennedy avoiding the issue?

It takes time and repetition, but vision can be sold. And it is vision Virginia Dems need. It will need to come from legislators as well as from Gov. Kaine. Given his parsing of the capital murder issue, we need more adventuresome participants in that exercise.

I am not arguing, as many liberals do, that we just have to stand on our principles and full steam ahead. We need to figure out how to articulate our principles.

But first, what are our principles?