BY NOW, WE KNOW whom Karl Rove was talking to when he accused the Democrats of being a permanently pre-9/11 party several weeks ago. His target audience, it’s increasingly apparent, was Republican senators and congressmen who are growing uneasy with the administration’s defense of warrantless wiretapping and the National Security Agency’s monitoring of messages without court approval.

In the Senate alone, such Republicans as Arlen Specter, Sam Brownback, Lindsay Graham, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have been throwing cold water on W’s wild-ass wiretapping. This thoroughly confounds Rove’s political strategy. For the real message of Rove’s speech was simple and a bit desperate:

“Hey, guys. We have nothing to run on except 9/11. We can’t run on the war, or the economy, or our competence, or our ethics. The only line we can draw that puts us on the side of truth and justice and the Democrats on the side of cosmic wussery is that we’re tougher than they are; that we don’t think we need a court order to wiretap anybody when our security may be at stake, or even when it’s not. If you oppose us on this, you slit your own throats. IT IS ALL WE HAVE TO RUN ON!”

But what do the Democrats plan to run on? In what looks to be shaping up as a Democratic year, the party’s leaders in Washington are curiously mute about how exactly they plan to commend themselves to the American people. Given that the American people prefer the Democrats’ position on the vast majority of issues, and overwhelmingly want the government to go in a different direction, the Democrats’ drift is perhaps the foremost political mystery of the day.

Last week, I sat in on a press breakfast, hosted by The American Prospect (the liberal monthly I work for in Washington), with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Reid’s was an engaging but frustrating performance. Asked about his party’s prospects, he noted that all incumbent Democratic senators on the ballot this year had comfortable leads, and reeled off five states where Democratic challengers led Republican incumbents: Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and Montana. Tennessee, where Bill Frist is stepping down, is in play, too, he said. For their part, Reid’s counterparts in the House assert that over 30 Republican seats are now in jeopardy; the Democrats need 16 to attain a majority.

And how would the Democrats get to that majority? Reid trumpeted that his New York colleague Chuck Schumer, heading up the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, had raised far more money than his Republican counterparts. And (we journalists were realizing they had to get more specific) what exactly was the Democratic message? Well, said Reid, the party had opposed Social Security privatization, and had blocked other Republican initiatives as well.

We took one more run at it (actually, several): Senator, what are the Democrats for?

That’s when Reid grew reticent. And his reticence isn’t personal; it’s institutional.

On the one hand, the Republicans are falling of their own accord: Their war is a bloody quagmire; their economy is one in which incomes fall amid a recovery; their new Medicare drug program is a free-market travesty; their competence is a joke; their ethics, a disgrace. But, taking these in order, the Democrats have no coherent position on the war; they have a far saner economic posture than the Republicans but no idea how to generate good jobs in a global economy; they have decent discrete health-care ideas, but have not embraced a universal public system, though the private, employer-provided system is crumbling daily; their competence can’t be worse than the Republicans’, but, since they control nothing, neither can it be demonstrated, and their failure to have a coherent message suggests they might not be all that competent, either. Some congressional Democrats — Congressmen Barney Frank and David Obey, most particularly — have advanced some far-reaching clean-government ideas, but the party has been inept at capitalizing on the Abramoff scandal, which is the worst D.C. has seen in many decades.

THERE ARE EXPLANATIONS, some of them decent, for the Democrats’ silence on some of these issues. The failure of the Clinton health-care plan in 1994 convinced Democrats to make no large plans when it comes to health care — a position that the daily collapse of employer-provided benefits is rapidly rendering obsolete, if only the Democrats realized it. Having lost the 2002 and 2004 elections in part because Bush painted them as soft on America’s enemies, they are scared to say even that our Iraqi intervention makes us less, not more, secure. And generating good jobs in a globalized economy is a perplexing and daunting challenge, since it probably can’t be done without changing some of the new capitalism’s ground rules.

The Democrats’ failure to capitalize more on the Abramoff scandals is curiouser still. L.A. Congressman Henry Waxman, one of the smartest political heads the Democrats have, has endeavored to link the corruption to bad public policy: Republicans are beholden to drug companies; they let drug companies shape the new drug entitlement program; that’s why the program is both impenetrable and costly. But too few Democrats have been singing Waxman’s song.

At the federal level, many Democrats still fear affronting the public’s ideological aversion to new government programs. At the state and local level, this is less the case. Democratic governors, such as Illinois’ Rod Blagojevich, are creating universal health care for children, and here in California, Rob Reiner’s June initiative to create universal preschool, funded by a tax on the wealthiest Californians, is favored to win. Congressional Democrats cannot get such measures enacted, of course, with Republicans in control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but the lesson at the state level is that, six years into the Bush years, the public is ready for a government that actually works on their behalf.

What a notion. It would be nice if congressional Democrats realized this sometime before November.

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