It’s still the economy, stupid. The President gets it. The victory balloons from 2002 were still afloat when he sacked his economic team and named a new batch of former CEOs and Ford Administration retreads to “sell his economic program.” And new Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi gets it, as she convened 150 members in Washington to begin putting together a plan to get the economy moving.

Democrats of all stripes understand that the absence of an “economic message” cost them dearly in the last election. Bush wanted it to be about national security and “rolled out” the debate on Iraq and turned “homeland security” into a partisan club. Democrats wanted the election to be about the economy, but offered nothing but a reminder that it was lousy. The vast majority of voters wanted to vote on the economy, but two-thirds said they had no clear idea from either party of what it would do about it.

Pelosi is intent on not making that mistake again. She wants to draw clear contrasts, starting with the upcoming debate on the stimulus plan. With the Administration putting together a new batch of tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy as the centerpiece of its plan, a Democratic program that “puts people first” would offer a stark contrast to this “trickle down” rerun.

At the House gathering, Larry Mishel, the new president of the Economic Policy Institute, described the elements of a common sense alternative: temporary tax breaks targeted to low- and middle-income earners; assistance to beleaguered states on homeland security, schools and soaring healthcare costs; and extension of benefits to unemployed workers–something Republicans refused to pass in November. A deficit package, he argued, should be temporary, but big enough to jump-start the economy, with enough money to help states and localities avoid debilitating cuts.

But unity isn’t in the Democratic lexicon–particularly in the absence of a national leader. Former Clintonistas want the party to be the keepers of budget balance. They urge tying any short-term stimulus plan to long-term “freezing” of the upper-end Bush tax cuts that have yet to come into effect–a sound idea but one that irritates the conservative Senate Democrats who voted for the Bush tax cuts and have doubts about whether a stimulus is really needed. Progressives are happy to take on the Bush tax cuts, but want to emphasize jobs and growth, not fiscal austerity in a economy verging on deflation.

Party strategists worry that Bush will co-opt Democratic plans, adding their proposed tax cuts to his own package. That’s what he did last time when Democrats called for an immediate tax rebate, in contrast to the Bush tax plan. Bush simply embraced the rebates and had the IRS send out the checks in his name.

And Democrats still relish shooting at each other rather than at Bush. In Louisiana, endangered Senator Mary Landrieu showed Democrats how to win with a near-death campaign conversion to focusing on mobilizing base African-American voters and appealing to both base and swing voters by challenging Bush on economic issues. But simultaneously, New Dems were circulating their perennial memo attributing Election Day losses to a party that was “too liberal” and too fixated on its base to appeal to swing voters. They called for Democrats to “put security first” by being tougher than Bush on terrorism and “regime change” in Iraq.

Perhaps the best advice of the House retreat, ironically, came from former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips. Phillips, who has been railing against growing inequality as a threat to prosperity and democracy, scoured Democrats for not challenging Bush’s upper-class warfare on the rest of us. He suggested that Democrats make their inevitable divisions into a strength: Democrats in safe seats should organize themselves to speak independently and attack the Republican Party of privilege and prejudice; those in more conservative and endangered districts could benefit from the damage inflicted while remaining above the fray.

This fits the temper of progressives in and out of Congress who are disgusted at the inability of Democrats to speak clearly about what they are for and fight openly against Republican coddling of corporations and the radical right. Progressive leaders in the House–Jan Schakowsky, George Miller, Barney Frank, Maxine Waters, Sherrod Brown–are very close to Pelosi and committed to helping her succeed. But she will face the same pressures Dick Gephardt did to keep the party unified. Too often that has resulted in the party ending up saying nothing at all. As Phillips suggested, it’s time for progressives to link with outside groups–labor, environmental, civil rights, women–and take the gloves off.

The belated, passive reaction to Senator Trent Lott’s endorsement of Strom Thurmond’s pro-segregation, pro-lynching Dixiecrat Party reveals how necessary this is. It took five days for Al Gore to denounce Lott’s comments as racist. And he was the first non-African-American party leader to demand that Lott be censured or resign.

Voters have a clear idea of what Republicans stand for–tax cuts, privilege, corporations and white sanctuary. But they have no clue of what Democrats are for. Clarity will come only when Democrats state what they are for and fight fiercely against what they oppose. For that to happen, progressives have got to stop biting their tongues in the name of party unity and start making their case.