Behind the Curtain

Published on
by
the New York Times

Behind the Curtain

by
Bob Herbert

A friend of mine, talking about the Democratic presidential candidates, tossed out a wonderful mixed metaphor: "This is awfully weak tea to have to hang your hat on."

The notion that Bush & Co. had fouled things up so badly for Republicans that just about any Democrat could romp to victory in 2008 was never realistic. What's interesting now, with the first contests just weeks away, is the extent to which Democratic voters are worried about the possibility that none of their candidates have the stuff to take the White House.

This election, the most important in decades, cries out for strong leadership. The electorate is upset, anxious and hungry for change. But "weak tea" is as good a term as any to describe what the Democrats are offering.

Hillary Clinton is the cautious, rigidly programmed candidate who, in the view of most voters, will say whatever the moment demands. Spontaneous she ain't. You can just picture her cross-examining advisers and prowling through polling data to determine whether she's for or against driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Barack Obama has the incandescent smile, and the personality to go with it. Oprah loves him, and a lot of campuses are wild for him. But you still wonder if there's any there there.

His is the make-nice candidacy, no sharp edges. But it's one thing to offer yourself as the agent of change, and quite another to answer the obvious question, "Change to what?"

John Edwards has been the most forceful of the so-called top-tier candidates. But his plan from the beginning was to move to the left of Senator Clinton, never expecting to find Senator Obama happily patrolling that progressive, antiwar region.

Mr. Obama had barely stenciled his name on his Senate office door before grabbing his hat and announcing he was running for president. That was faster than even Mr. Edwards's first, lightning-quick decision to seek the highest office in the land.

The problem for voters is that very little leadership has emerged from the many months of frenetic Democratic fund-raising and politicking.

For all the noise and incessant posturing, we still don't have a clear sense of where Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or any of the others would take the country.

Bush-bashing is not enough. Unless one of the Democratic candidates finds the courage to step up and offer a vision of an American future so compelling that voters head to the polls with a sense of excitement and great expectation, the Republican Party could once again capture the White House (despite its awful performance over the past eight years) with its patented mixture of snake oil and demagoguery.

The G.O.P. game plan is already being pieced together. The White House hopes to inoculate Republican candidates on the Iraq war issue by bringing home a significant number of combat troops in the middle of the general election. And the demagogic issue of choice for 2008 is immigration.

The Willie Horton ugliness of 1988 will be like nothing compared with the concerted attack to be unleashed by the G.O.P. on illegal immigrants next year.

The Democrats will have to figure out a way to counter that with an appeal to the better angels of our nature, and that will require courage.

The need to offer an honest vision that is almost electric in its intensity is especially important for Senators Clinton and Obama. Both have to rally enough voters to overcome deep wells of prejudice in this society. That can't be done by referencing a résumé, or in a nine-second response to a question from Wolf Blitzer.

The American public, tired of war and economically insecure, longs for a leader who will tell the truth and offer a way out of the current morass.

A Democrat can win with a realistic plan for exiting Iraq and, more important, a full-blown economic strategy that addresses the growing anxiety over the fading American dream.

This debilitating anxiety is fed by an uncertain job market; by the housing crisis and the humongous debt that is smothering the middle class; by the long-term erosion of health and pension benefits; by the increasing cost of higher education; and so forth.

It is this spreading anxiety that makes it so easy for the demagogues to gin up the rage against foreigners.

A Democrat who makes a believable case that these problems can be dealt with effectively - and who asks the public to roll up its sleeves and join in such an effort - can win.

But that's not what we're getting. Not so far. And maybe it's not necessary. Maybe the economy will be so bad next year that a Democrat will win in any event. But that's not the kind of tea you want to hang your hat on.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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