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Feed the Goats

Running for president requires a capacious ego and a boundless optimism about one’s chances. But even the most Pollyanna-ish and swell-headed among the nine Democratic presidential candidates who squabbled for 90 nationally televised minutes last Saturday had to experience a severe case of agita after reading the latest Zogby poll, released May 6: It showed that 61 percent of Democrats believe George Bush will be re-elected in 2004.

The Democrats’ so-called debate in South Carolina — in a “Dating Game” format cooked up by ABC and moderated by George Stephanopoulos — helps explain those numbers. The White House postulants were, at best, mediocre.

John Kerry was probably the biggest loser. The putative front-runner in New Hampshire in the primary polls, Kerry — tanned but audibly hoarse — was predictably prolix and kept falling over his words. At one point in an exchange over civil rights for gay people, Kerry referred to the “non-employment discrimination legislation” — a mangled citation of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), of which, he boasted, he’s the chief sponsor. Too bad he couldn’t get the name right. Worse, Kerry “never got around to developing the rationale for his candidacy,” as David Broder, Washington’s Pope of the Obvious, sniffed in his post-debate column.

Joe Lieberman, who partnered with Dick Gephardt in the Rose Garden sellout to Dubya (where they announced their co-sponsorship of Bush’s Iraq war resolution), trumpeted his ardent support of the war as making him the electable candidate. In the process, he accused Kerry — who voted for that resolution, which gave away Congress’ war-making powers to the White House — of being “ambivalent” on the war. Kerry — who’s been chirping some criticisms of the war’s conduct in an attempt to undercut Howard Dean’s appeal to anti-war primary voters — insisted “there’s no ambivalence” in his position. Uh-huh. After the debate, the Lieberman campaign sent out a newspaper clip quoting Kerry’s chief spokesman, Chris Lahane, saying, “The country is clearly ambivalent about Iraq. Kerry has been exactly where the country is.” In other words, Big John has his finger in the wind.

When Stephanopoulos told Lieberman that many considered him “too nice to take on Bush” — translation: too much of a me-too-er — the former veep candidate said he’d showed he was tough “by taking on Hollywood for peddling sex and violence to our kids.” This reminder to civil liberties–minded primary voters of Lieberman’s censorious partnership with the moralizer/gambling degenerate Bill Bennett (now baptized “The Holy Roller” by Washington wags) won’t do Holy Joe much good outside the South.

Florida’s Senator Bob Graham — visibly thinned by the heart surgery that delayed his declaration of candidacy — tried to out-hawk Lieberman by restating his desire to extend the war beyond Iraq to take on Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. None of the other eight challenged Graham’s incendiary proposal for a bloodbath encompassing the entire Middle East. In fact, Graham was virtually ignored by the other eight.

Of the left-positioned Democrats, Al Sharpton was on his best behavior, saying nothing outrageous but also little of substance. And the vapid niceties from the mouth of Carol Mosely Braun seemed to confirm Stephanopolous’ diagnosis that “you’re running [only] to take votes from Al Sharpton.” Only Dennis Kucinich, the anti-war Ohio congressman, noticeably ignored by his competitors, managed to squeeze sharply defined programmatic alternatives into his allotted minutes — he called for flat-out “cancellation” of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization treaty, for repeal of the civil-liberties-shredding Patriot Act, and painted himself as the anti-monopoly, anti-corporate candidate. But the press paid little attention — for example, The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney didn’t even mention Kucinich in his post-debate report for “the paper of record.” It didn’t help that Kucinich’s unsmiling, black-suited, funereal performance made him look like an unhappy warrior. And no one wants to hear a message of hope from a mortician.

Gephardt the Constitution shredder — who winced when Stephanopoulos told him he’s considered by many Democrats to be “this year’s Bob Dole” — looked tired and baggy-eyed. And when he lapsed into obscure Congress-speak acronyms in references to China trade and fuel-emission standards, he was quite Dole-like. When his cumbersome health-care plan, financed by tax breaks, came under attack from some of his competitors, Gephardt launched into an explanation of the plan that was incomprehensible to the average voter, and he kept insisting, “I can pass it!” This was a hollow promise: Since he couldn’t do so when the Dems still had a House majority, it’s hard to see how he could do so in a Republican Congress — especially since early forecasts suggest the Democrats will lose still more seats in both chambers next year.

Howard Dean scored points against Kerry and John Edwards as me-too-ers when he chided them for having just helped block an attempt by Senator Fritz Hollings to annul a huge chunk of Bush’s pro-corporate tax cuts. Dean’s reiteration of his opposition to the war in Iraq, which has motored his candidacy thus far, was noteworthy for his newly minted emphasis on opposition to the Bush doctrine of “preventive war” — given that he’d endorsed the concept in a speech just a few months ago. And the Vermont Doctor’s predominantly grim facial expression made him look like he was telling a patient of the need for a costly operation when Dean plumped for his health-care plan. Dean claimed credit for increasing Vermont’s health-insurance program to cover “96.4 percent of all our people.” Kerry challenged the numbers, claiming the percentage of Vermonters covered actually declined under Dean, from 90.5 percent to 90.4 percent. Neither Kerry’s claims nor Dean’s turned out to be true: A post-debate analysis by AP Vermont correspondent Christopher Graff put the real number at 91.6 percent, and it hadn’t changed much while Dean was guv.

John Edwards, the sex-appeal candidate, looked pretty. Informed by Stephanopoulos that he was viewed by Dems as “having plenty of charisma but no policy depth or experience,” Edwards kept returning to his poor-boy rap about his origins making him “someone who understands people.” Well, he’s a multimillionaire now, and the sympathetic-sounding but vague generalities he delivered did little to dispel the notion that he was a policy-lite DLC centrist with a populist rhetorical face-lift.

On this crowded platform, with each contender limited to 90-second responses, no one shone, none broke through with a clear and concise message. As George Wallace advised Jesse Jackson when he came to visit the old ex-seg during the Rev’s first presidential campaign, “You’ve got to keep your message so close to the ground the goats can get at it.” But none of the nine has yet honed his message into a simple and comprehensible soundbite or a slogan that can fit on a bumper sticker — at least not one that has the power and appeal of Bush’s simplistic (and oh-so-wrong-headed) mantra, “Cut Taxes.”

Moreover, Bush came under little fire in this internecine jockeying for advantage among those who would replace him. The leading Dems have been cowed for so long by Bush’s war-driven poll numbers that they seem to have gotten out of the habit of attacking him. And “the vision thing” was noticeably lacking in the South Carolina Democratic cattle call.

If the Democrats can’t get their act together, you’d better get used to those chants of “Four More Years!”