“Get It Together, Democrats.� So says Bob Herbert in the New York Times recently.

He points out the problems facing the Republican Party at the national level (“the party is in free fall�), but then adds,

A survey taken by the Pew Research Center showed an abysmal 32 percent approval rating for Democratic leaders in Congress.

32%! Wow. That’s low. But Herbert’s point is that SOMEbody needs to start offering us some hope. He urges Democrats to step up and do that.

A friend reminded me recently of the old political adage that all campaigns are a battle between hope and fear. Ever since Sept. 11 President Bush and the G.O.P. have been pushing the nation’s fear buttons for all they’re worth. The public is frightened, all right – about terror, about the consequences of the war in Iraq, about economic insecurity here at home, about the future of the United States. But there is no longer much confidence that President Bush and the Republicans are competent to deal with these tough issues.

He complains that so many national Democrats are not offering an alternative approach to the mess in Iraq – even though the American people seem ready to face reality and consider plans for bringing an at least somewhat honorable end to this less-than-honorable mis-adventure.

Then he starts to hit issues in which state and local politics can have some direct impact.

• Democrats need to tell the country the truth about taxes,
• about the benefits of investing in the nation’s physical infrastructure,
• about the essential need to bolster public education from kindergarten through college, and
• about the shared sacrifices that will be necessary if anything approaching energy independence is to be achieved.

Of course, if that’s good advice for Democrats, it’s probably good advice for Republicans too. Except maybe Democrats are more likely to actually believe those things. And they are more likely to be credible talking about those things.

They need to be optimistic and hopeful as they deliver their message to the country, explaining that all of these things are doable, that they will strengthen the U.S. in the short term and create a better future for the next generation and the one after that.

Competence is essential, but it’s not enough. The great voices of history have always been the voices of optimism and hope.