WASHINGTON The Democrats these days have the self-confidence
of a couple of gawky adolescent boys fantasizing about getting dates to the
junior prom. When they are together as a group, they can talk a brave game.
But when it comes to picking up the phone and actually (yikes!) calling a girl,
they become hopelessly flustered and tongue-tied.
This Democratic dilemma was highlighted Thursday at a conference
sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future, a group that has emerged as
the progressive counter-weight to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
Rather than rousing the faithful to a fever pitch, speeches by Democratic House
members, former Clinton advisors, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and three likely
presidential candidates underlined the reality that this party is crippled by
Who would have imagined a year ago that a gathering of
left-wing Democrats would barely mention George W. Bush's proposed $48 billion
increase in the military budget? Or that the party's progressive shock troops
would shy away from deriding conservative Attorney General John Ashcroft for
short-circuiting civil liberties in his efforts to combat terrorism? Virtually
the only high-energy moment came when fiery Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky provoked
the audience into repeating the refrain, "Tax breaks for the rich," as the Bush
administration's favored solution to all national problems.
This weekend, many would-be 2004 Democratic presidential
contenders will be in Orlando test-marketing stump speeches at the Florida state
party convention. For North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and House Minority Leader
Dick Gephardt, who will be in Iowa this weekend, Thursday provided an opportunity
to test applause lines before a live audience. But judging from Gephardt's overamplified
bellow and Edwards' well-crafted but vague rhetoric, the Democrats still have
a long way to go in their quest to perfect a politically potent party message.
Thursday's conference was billed as a repudiation of Enron
economics. Veteran activist Bob Borosage, the group's co-director, called Enron
"the classic scandal to depict this conservative era." But former Clinton pollster
Stan Greenberg presented survey data to show that congressional Democrats have
derived virtually no political benefit from the largest corporate scandal in
decades. As he put it, "When it comes to fighting the special interests in Washington,
there is no difference between the two parties. If Democrats are speaking out,
they're not being heard."
At a time when the president's poll ratings are so high
that they deserve their own flight path, the Democrats are not likely to be
handed many issues. That's why the party's failure to successfully exploit Enron
is so symbolic of Democratic disarray.
Even health care, traditionally a potent Democratic issue,
inspires little more than an apologetic stammer from party leaders. Gephardt
dramatically declared, "We've got a health care crisis in America." So what
bold policy alternative was offered by the man who wants to be speaker of the
House and who is laying the groundwork for his second presidential race? Gephardt
mentioned the need to expand health insurance coverage, but then immediately
admitted, "I don't have some grand, wise, simple scheme to do it."
For his part, Edwards began with the truism that Democrats
"have to be willing to be heard in easy and difficult times." Using almost the
same words as Gephardt, Edwards referred to the "looming health care crisis."
But in these difficult political times, Edwards, too, grew timorous when it
came to the solutions part of the equation. After invoking the Democratic mantra
of making "prescription drugs affordable for all Americans," he promptly conceded:
"It's not easy. There's no magic solution."
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean the latest in a line of
small-state Democratic governors entranced with the notion that he can catch
fire in the primaries is the would-be contender with nothing to lose.
Dean, who will skip Florida to make his pitch at the Minnesota party convention,
was the lone Democrat with the moxie to declare, "The first thing we need to
do is to roll back those (Bush) tax cuts." But boldness is easy for a little-known
candidate fantasizing about somehow wresting the nomination from the likes of
While political soothsaying this far in advance is always
a mug's game, it is probable that Bush will still appear virtually unbeatable
in early 2004 when the Democrats choose their nominee. What that means is that
primary voters are likely to be searching for a candidate who makes them feel
good as Democrats, rather than merely judging the field through the prism of
who will make the best president. These psychological factors are apt to turn
voting in the primaries into a form of self-expression rather than an exercise
in political pragmatism. That's why these three factors will loom large in the
Ideology. Left-leaning Democrats, who can
be a potent voting bloc in the primaries, may be attracted to Dean's long-shot
crusade, Gephardt's pro-union Democratic credentials or the partisan rhetoric
of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. If he runs, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman
is likely to be the most conservative Democrat in the race.
Gratitude. This is Gore's strong suit, especially
among Democrats still snarling "We wuz robbed" over the 2000 election. But Gephardt
and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle may also collect due bills for standing
up for party principles in a brutal environment.
Likability. With his Southern charm and boyish
good looks, Edwards has the edge as the primary contender most likely to leave
Democratic voters smiling. Though Daschle and maybe even Dean could also emerge
as the Happy Warriors in the Democratic field.
Yes, it will be a long and winding road to the Iowa caucuses
and the New Hampshire primary. But as Democrats begin their warm-up exercises
at the starting gate, they should remember that even fleet feet spell defeat
if you are running scared.
© Copyright 2002 USA TODAY