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Wednesday, February 1, 2006 - Page updated at 11:08 AM

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Guest columnist

Democrats need to focus on a coherent message

Special to The Times

A few weeks ago, I went to my neighborhood Starbucks and ordered a "tall drip" coffee. The attentive barista smiled. My teenage daughter then chirped up: "I'd like a grande chai tea latte with 1-percent milk, no water, at 140 degrees." The barista grabbed a pen.

This incident symbolizes what is wrong with today's Democratic Party. The Republicans have a very straightforward message: "We are the party of security and economic opportunity." The Democrats, by contrast, have so many ingredients in their message that you need a matrix to comprehend what they are all about.

As a former candidate for public office, I care deeply that the Democratic Party not only gets its messaging right, but that we look deeply into our history and our souls to understand who we are and how to go forward to reclaim majority status.

From the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Democrats have won elections by being the party of the "Big Tent." Voters correctly identify Democrats with policies advancing economic justice, minority rights, personal freedoms, environmental stewardship and sensible security.

Party insiders criticized candidate John Kerry for having "too many messages," but what part of the Noah's Ark-sized Democratic platform should he have dropped? Given a choice between calling for civil liberties or a new energy policy or health-care reform or nuclear arms control, Kerry would invariably lengthen his speech by 10 minutes.

President Bush's message was not only simpler, but the themes linked together organically. His message of the virtue of "working hard" flows into "less government" and then flows back into "opportunity for everyone" which directly links to "freedom."

While many people snicker that Bush's demeanor and delivery are dim, they might consider that the GOP message is far more thematically coherent than the Democrats' "something for everyone" grab bag of policies and programs. Each individual Democratic proposal may have compelling merit, but the whole somehow adds up to less than the sum of the parts and I don't believe that this is the fault of Kerry or Howard Dean or any particular messenger.

The Democrats' Hydra-headed messaging dilemma is compounded by a powerful new trend in the way Americans process political news. Over the past 10 years, media outlets ranging from Web sites to cable news shows have proliferated like the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" brooms in "Fantasia." The success of one blog spawns five more. The shrillness of Fox host Bill O'Reilly gives rise to more imitators on the right and left. In such a diversified and noisy environment, simple messages cut through the clutter, while complex messages get picked apart, distorted and lost.

Karl Rove and the GOP brain trust recognize this trend and have continued to boil down their policy initiatives into coherent messages that are easy to remember and that resonate with people who are looking for a Pole Star as opposed to a map of the skies.

Will America's minority party be wise enough to stop complaining about "stolen elections" and start focusing on the concept of "focus"? We have many appealing things to say about the future of America. Yet, if we try to please every splinter group in order to gain one more electoral bloc, we wind up losing the center.

In a world increasingly dominated by sensory overload, effective speakers concentrate on identifying essential truths and conveying them to the voting public in the most direct manner. If we fail in this critical quest, we'll continue to feel like we win all the points in issues-oriented debates and scratch our heads wondering why we lose national elections that are decided by the forceful communication of fundamental themes.

Alex Alben is a high-tech executive. He was a Democratic candidate in 2004 in Washington's 8th Congressional District.

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