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Wobbly Dems Unleash Timid Thunder
Published on Friday, April 12, 2002 in USAToday
Wobbly Dems Unleash Timid Thunder
by Walter Shapiro
 
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 fear.

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 Al Gore.

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 Democratic race:

• 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

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