"Houston, we have a problem." With those words, spoken with a calm that masked the gravity of the situation, astronaut Jim Lovell informed NASA that Apollo 13 was running out of oxygen.
The skinny guys with skinny ties back in Houston, and the crew-cut crew in space, acted. They didn't argue. They didn't second-guess. They didn't blame each other. They acted. And most important, they didn't deny that they had a problem.
But today, too many leading Democratic strategists deny that the party we love has a problem. When you lose to an unpopular president with a soft economy and a disastrous occupation in Iraq — a man who lost all three debates and who, when he's trying to complete a sentence, is like a drunk man trying to cross an icy street — you most definitely have a problem.
Let's be clear what the problem is — and is not.
Some think the problem is that Democrats have become too liberal. They point to unpopular positions on partial-birth abortion and other social issues and say Democrats should return to the center.
Others say the problem is that the party has become too conservative. They point to Democrats who supported President Bush's tax cuts for the rich and the crippling deficits they caused, and say the party should return to its progressive, populist roots.
Both are right, but more broadly, both are wrong.
Sure, we'd like it if Democrats were seen as the party of faith, family and the flag. And we'd like it if Democrats would fight corporate interests more and take their special interest money less. But the biggest problem the Democrats face is not that they're seen as standing for too many liberal issues or standing for too many conservative positions. It's that Democrats aren't seen as standing for anything.
The fundamental question for the party out of power is always: What would you change?
Democrats' answer should be, "Everything." On every front, on every issue, Democrats should be the party of reform, change and a new direction.
• The economy. President Bush's weak-dollar, high-debt economic policies have placed our economic destiny in the hands of communist Chinese central bankers and Arab oil sheiks. Democrats should stand for fiscal responsibility, asking the wealthiest to pay their share of the debt — and reform, reform, reform. We should reform trade laws that encourage corporations to ship jobs overseas. We should reform the tax code and replace the current lobbyists' dream with a tax code that is simpler, fairer and more progressive. Above all, we should place middle-class jobs and middle-class values at the heart of our economic policy. Middle-class Americans are working hard and playing by the rules, but they are being ripped off at every turn. They need economic reform.
• Health care. While millions of Americans are debating whether they would want to prolong their life through extraordinary measures, the reality is many Americans will never have that option.
President Bush has proposed crippling cuts in Medicaid (a program that supported Terri Schiavo). The corrupt alliance between pharmaceutical lobbyists and the Republicans resulted in a prescription drug bill that costs twice what we were told it would — perhaps because the new law makes it a crime to negotiate for lower prices. If that law applied to businesses, every manager of every Wal-Mart would be in jail. Democrats should stand for health care reform.
• Foreign policy. Rather than reform our badly broken intelligence services, President Bush and the Republicans have engaged in political purges, rewarding those who were most wrong about the war in Iraq and punishing those few who sounded alarms.
Rather than reforming and modernizing our alliances, President Bush has alienated our friends and emboldened our enemies. Worst of all, our senior government officials cannot always be counted on to tell us the truth when American lives are at risk. It's time to reform our foreign policy.
• Political reform. When House Republicans choose as their leader Tom DeLay, who has been cited and sanctioned by the Ethics Committee more often than any other congressman, it's high time for reform.
When lobbyists are writing legislation, when gambling interests are paying for luxury junkets, when the Ethics Committee itself has been put out of business, it's time for reform. Democrats should stand for cracking down on lobbyists and cleaning up our politics.
Lord Acton said absolute power corrupts absolutely. The absolute power Republicans currently enjoy in Washington has corrupted our economy, our foreign policy, our health care system and our very democracy.
If Democrats can't take on that corruption with a bold and broad agenda of change and reform, then (to paraphrase the late senator Pat Moynihan) we'd better find another country to run in.
Right now it seems to me that the Dems are in a reactive, defensive mode. I think Howard Dean can change that to an active, aggressive program. Here's hopin'.