Running for president requires a capacious ego and a boundless optimism about ones 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, hes the chief sponsor. Too bad he couldnt get the name right. Worse, Kerry never got around to developing the rationale for his candidacy, as David Broder, Washingtons 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 Bushs 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 whos been chirping some criticisms of the wars conduct in an attempt to undercut Howard Deans appeal to anti-war primary voters insisted theres no ambivalence in his position. Uh-huh. After the debate, the Lieberman campaign sent out a newspaper clip quoting Kerrys 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 hed showed he was tough by taking on Hollywood for peddling sex and violence to our kids. This reminder to civil libertiesminded primary voters of Liebermans censorious partnership with the moralizer/gambling degenerate Bill Bennett (now baptized The Holy Roller by Washington wags) wont do Holy Joe much good outside the South.
Floridas 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 Grahams 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 youre 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 didnt even mention Kucinich in his post-debate report for the paper of record. It didnt help that Kucinichs 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 hes considered by many Democrats to be this years 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 couldnt do so when the Dems still had a House majority, its 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 Bushs pro-corporate tax cuts. Deans 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 hed endorsed the concept in a speech just a few months ago. And the Vermont Doctors 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 Vermonts 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 Kerrys claims nor Deans 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 hadnt changed much while Dean was guv.
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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, hes 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 Revs first presidential campaign, Youve 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 Bushs 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 Bushs 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 cant get their act together, youd better get used to those chants of Four More Years!