AUSTIN, Texas -- I have been collecting material for a series of columns on the peppy topic, "How Do We Fix This Mess?" The news is dandy in that there are a lot of a sound ideas being passed around. Really serious messes, like the one this country is in, do not, in my experience, have simple, definitive solutions. And if they do, such solutions are politically impossible. We are looking for progress, not perfection, so anyone who tells you the entire tax code should fit on a postcard is a bona fide, certified, chicken-fried moron.

But listening to the Democratic debate on what to do now, it seems to me some of the brethren and sistren are asking the wrong questions. The question is not, "How Do We Win?" That's a technical question that comes after, "What the Hell Can We Do About This Disaster?"

I personally think some good ideas and a plan should come first -- and to this end, let me chime in on a note of agreement with some Actual Moderates, William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck, a couple of Clintonites still carrying on in that old Third Way that was good enough for Bill C.

They are opposed to putting too much stock in the political strategy of "reframing" issues as advised by the linguist George Lakoff. This seems to me merest common sense, and I'm not sure Lakoff himself wouldn't agree.

Frank Luntz, the focus-group king and message-meister who keeps the Republicans all chorusing the same carefully worded talking points, is indeed a large part of the R's win strategy. But I think the reason R's have been successful in selling rotten policies that really hurt people is not so much because of clever wording as because Democrats haven't stood up and pointed out what was happening.

Believe it or not, there is a certain charm to simply telling the truth, and even to telling the truth simply. This emperor isn't wearing any clothes, and the people who are pointing that out now that Bush's approval ratings are at 37 percent, but who were nowhere to be heard when he was at 60 and better, are maybe not the people we should be looking to now.

Which brings us to the Democratic Leadership Council and the Al From-Bruce Reed take on what we should do now. The DLC is regularly condemned as being Republican Lite, but it seems to me its problem is being Light Lite. The From-Reed proposal is security, values, opportunity and reform -- a perfect symphony of the obvious. I do like their Opportunity ideas:

-- Create high-wage jobs by making the United States the top exporter of energy-efficient products.

-- Cut $300 billion in subsidies, and invest it in innovation, education and growth.

-- Pass tax reform to replace 60 tax breaks with four: college, homes, kids, universal pensions.

The problem comes when you look at their reform initiatives -- lobbying reform to close the revolving door and a ban partisan gerrymandering. Uh, how about we address the problem that our entire political system is corrupt, that it has been corrupted by corporate money, and that we have government of corporate interests, by corporate interests and for corporate interests -- and that we really need to change that, instead of trying to raise more corporate money than Republicans?

David Sirota, a stout liberal attacking from the other side, decries Partisan War Syndrome, which he defines as beginning with the assumption that substance is irrelevant when it comes to winning elections and "far more damaging to actually building a serious, long-lasting political movement." I like people who think like that.

Bob Borosage, director of the Campaign for America's Future, offers a "Real Contract With America" in the current issue of the The Nation. He has some excellent ideas, and I'll discuss them more later. Like the others, Borosage emphasizes Making America Safe and Real Security for America. What you find across the Democratic spectrum is agreement that the Bushies are hopelessly inept at homeland security. Essentially nothing has been done to protect the ports, and almost no progress has been made on helping first responders and improving public health capacity, despite all that money spent on small towns in Wyoming. The chemical plants are obvious targets -- but heaven forfend that the Bushies should force their dear friends in the chemical industry to spend money on public safety.

For me, the most annoying suggestion being made is that Democrats somehow need to claim or reclaim patriotism or to do something to let folks know that we, too, love our country. I find that hideously offensive. I have always thought the only way to respond to Republican statements and implications questioning the patriotism of non-Republicans is with a good swift blast of venomous anger.

How dare they imply that opposing war in Iraq calls one's patriotism into question? Take the offensive. Anyone who would use that kind of slimy attack sullies America, where dissent is honored, respected and, Lord knows, needed.

The contemptible, petty, little would-be Joe McCarthys need to understand what love of country really means -- love of the highest and best in America. Never to be confused with "pre-emptive war" over nonexistent weapons and certainly not with using "democracy" to sell a rotten, failed war.

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