Campaign cattle calls, like the one at last week's Democratic
National Committee winter meeting, are generally among the most staged of political events - candidates show up delivering early versions of
their stump speech, while the ready-made cheering sections, often bused
in by the candidates themselves, burst into wild, maniacal cheering at every bland applause line.
On Friday and Saturday, seven of the eight announced Democratic presidential candidates (all but Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is still recovering from prostate cancer surgery) showed up at the Hyatt Regency hotel on Capitol Hill to test-market their messages to the party faithful. Most of the speeches followed a general pattern: I'm the
son/daughter of . . . (Insert Joe Lunchbox occupation: a postal worker/mill
worker/milk man/etc.); I'm a regular Joe/Jane who represents the
interests of The People; I've come very far in life from my youth as one
of The People; President Bush is not one of The People and should be
replaced by someone who is. And so on.
But there was important news amid the speeches: the extent to which
the looming war on Iraq is going to play a role in the 2004 Democratic
primaries. The early conventional wisdom in Washington is that, at this
point, there are at least two tiers of candidates. In the first tier,
there are Sens. Kerry, Joe Lieberman (Conn.), and John Edwards (N.C.), and Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.). The second tier would be
led by former
Vermont Sen. Howard Dean, and also include the Rev. Al Sharpton, former
Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun and Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
One of the things the first tier has in common - other than proven
abilities to raise cash, national profiles, and first-rate campaign
staffs - is that they all supported the resolution last year authorizing
President Bush to use military force against Iraq. In their speeches,
these candidates seemed almost apologetic about their positions that
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must be disarmed by force if necessary. Each
of the resolution supporters is now stressing that they oppose Bush's
handling of the issue, while supporting his ultimate goals - removal of
Hussein/disarmament of Iraq.
"Now I know that there are a lot of you who don't agree with me about
this," Edwards, son of a mill worker, said, relegating his Iraq position
to a few words seemingly tacked on to the end of his speech. "I do
believe that Saddam Hussein needs to be disarmed, including, if
necessary, the use of military force. He has chemical and biological
weapons. He's used them in the past. We cannot let him have nuclear
Lieberman, who sought to establish his bona fides by talking about his
travels to Mississippi in 1964 to fight for the right of blacks to vote,
said of Iraq: "Now, my friends, to protect the safety of the American
people and the credibility of the United Nations, Iraq must
disarm - peacefully if possible, by force if necessary. Saddam Hussein's
weapons of mass destruction must be destroyed sooner than later, because
sooner or later, if we do not, they will be used against us."
Gephardt, son of a milk truck driver, jumped into the Iraq issue near
the beginning of his speech, seemingly to just get it out of the way:
"Before I start, I want to address the question of foreign policy in
Iraq, because I know it's on everyone's mind. I believe we must disarm
Saddam Hussein, and I'm proud that I wrote the resolution. It helped
lead the president to finally make his case to the United Nations."
Silence. Well, almost. One fellow in the back yelled, "shame."
The other four candidates who spoke made their opposition to Bush's
policy on Iraq a major issue - and at least one of them will likely enter
the first tier of candidates because of it, given the hardening
opposition to a military strike among the party rank and file. At this
point, that candidate seems to be Dean, a physician with an unabashedly
liberal message, strong speaking ability, good looks and aggressive
Dean's speech on Friday was among the best of the bunch, if for no
other reason than its audacity. He muttered only one or two lines of
pleasantries before getting right to the punch, challenging the
leadership of his party (and ostensibly two of the people, Lieberman and
Gephardt) who spoke before him.
"What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party
leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq …What
I want to know is why are Democratic Party leaders supporting tax
cuts …What I want to know is why we're fighting in Congress about the
patients' bill of rights when the Democratic Party ought to be standing
up for health care for every single American man, woman and child in
this country …What I want to know is why our folks are voting for the
president's No Child Left Behind bill that leaves every child behind,
every teacher behind, every school board behind and every property
taxpayer behind … (applause) … I'm Howard Dean, and I'm here to represent
the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
The Dean camp placed a crew of a few dozen over-hyped, over-caffeinated, whistle-blowing, sign-waving college kids next to the
section roped off for reporters (just so we wouldn't miss all the love Dean was getting from the crowd!). But it soon became apparent that Dean really had struck a chord with many in the greater audience, who stood
and cheered him a couple times.
Contrast Dean's speech with Lieberman's, which seemed flat and drew
among the least applause of the seven speeches. Lieberman's voice
borders on the monotone, and his attempts to spice it up are, well, kind
At one point, taking a stab at a pep rally delivery style, Lieberman exhorted the
crowd of several hundred people: "Two years ago, we were promised, most of all, a better economy. Has George Bush kept that promise?" Almost as
if wakened from a slumber, a dozen or so people figured out this is where they were supposed to answer back, and shouted "No!" Lieberman,
back to monotone, continued, "Right you are. No, no, no. And that's why George Bush must go."
If this were a contest for Orator-in-Chief, Lieberman wouldn't make
it past Iowa and New Hampshire, and Sharpton would be the next president
of the United States. Only the controversial Sharpton outshone Dean
oratorically (with Edwards pulling up a close third). Sharpton's speech, delivered seemingly without notes, was full of hilarious one-liners that framed serious assertions - that the Democratic party had strayed from its
roots and that President Bush was a captive of big-money and right-wing interests.
Perhaps the best-received line of the entire two-day speech fest was
Sharpton's comment about Bush's opposition to the University of
Michigan's affirmative action program, in which he suggested "the most
preferential president in history has been George Bush. He went to
undergraduate school under preferences. He went to graduate school under
preferences. He's the ultimate recipient of a set-aside program. The
Supreme Court set aside a whole election to make him the president of
the United States."
There were other rhetorical high points, most notably from Edwards.
The North Carolina senator has had to endure some early jabs from his
fellow first-tier candidates, whose aides are working overtime to
portray the first-termer as not ready for prime time. There have been
stories in recent weeks about the candidate's stumbles on the
Confederate Flag issue in South Carolina.
But Edwards has proven game on the stump. The White House has already
tried to make an issue of Edwards's career as a successful trial lawyer.
And in his speech on Saturday, he seemed eager to engage the president
on that issue.
"So I want to be as clear as I can be about this: I am proud of my
career. I am proud of the children I represented. I am proud of the
cases I won," Edwards said. "And so, Mr. President, if you want to talk
about the insiders you fought for, versus the kids and families that I
fought for, here's my message to you, Mr. President: Bring it on."
With the exception of Lieberman, most of the candidates seemed
determined to establish their liberal credentials, bashing Bush in
particular for pursing trillions of dollars in tax cuts that they said
clearly benefit the wealthy.
For instance, Gephardt stressed his proposals for pension reform and
tax credits to provide universal health care, while deriding Bush as a
captive of the rich and powerful.
"Don't you think it's time we had a president in the White House of
the United States of American who understood the life experience of
ordinary Americans out there trying to give their kids help?"
It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next year
or so. Yesterday, just one day after the DNC meeting wrapped up, some of
the party's most influential leaders, who were in town for the National
Governor's Association meeting, were questioning if the party was
drifting perilously to the left.
In a story in the Washington Post today, Dan Balz and David Broder
reported on the unease among some of the Democratic governors, who
feared that the candidates will go too far with the class warfare
"I worry about what sounds like class warfare and hostility to tax
cuts," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told Balz and Broder. Similarly,
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner said. "National Democrats have got an
enormous cultural mountain to climb to reach out to southern and rural
voters. My message was economic growth and was more an appeal about how
not to get left behind in an information age. It was not
Both parties have experienced this angst in the last few presidential
elections. As more and more voters have identified themselves as
moderate or independent, candidates have struggled over how to appeal to
their parties' bases, without turning off the mushy middle. The current
and previous presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, proved to be
masters at balancing those competing forces, and owe their election
victories to their abilities to repudiate the negative stuff that
tainted their parties' reputations, while still offering red meat to the
people who vote in presidential primaries.
Whether any of the candidates battling out for the Democratic party
mantle have what it takes in that regard remains to be seen.
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