Two days after George W. Bush strutted across the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in full fighter-pilot regalia--an image we may see from time to time between now and Election Day--the nine Democrats running for President of the U.S. held their first debate of the 2004 campaign. No more than 10 minutes into it, two of those Democrats, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Howard Dean of Vermont, had entangled themselves in a ridiculous scuffle over the issue of gay rights. Not that they disagreed. Both are staunch advocates of equal rights and "civil unions." But Kerry believed that Dean had accused him of a lack of courage on this topic. "I don't need any lectures in courage from Howard Dean," said Kerry, a Vietnam War hero who probably should have saved that line for a more crucial evening.
Dean insisted that he had been misquoted by a San Francisco newspaper; the paper had printed a correction. This seemed a classic Democratic Party moment--woolly liberals taking time from crucial issues like war and peace and prosperity to argue over who could offer the most extravagant pander to a narrow, controversial interest group. Happily for both Kerry and Dean, practically no one was watching. The debate was aired by a smattering of ABC affiliates at 11:30 on Saturday night and by CSPAN the next day.
There are futility metaphors aplenty here: The contrast between the swaggering President and the squabbling Dems. The nonargument over periphera. The absence of an audience. But then, the Democrats have excelled at futility for more than 30 years. They have elected two Presidents during that time, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Both were Governors of Southern states. Neither was a well-known party leader. Neither ran on what many Democrats would consider a traditional--that is, liberal--agenda. Carter was the first born-again Christian President; Clinton once owned a pickup truck with AstroTurf carpeting in the back. Carter won because he seemed a simple, honorable antidote to the excessive dishonesty of the Nixon era. Clinton won because he was far more talented than his opponents--George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole--but also because he rejected his party's orthodoxy on crime (especially the death penalty), welfare reform, free trade and fiscal conservatism. One could argue that the only winning strategy for Democrats in the past nine presidential campaigns has been camouflage.
Which brings us to 2004, another election the Democrats should lose. They are facing a popular incumbent who has just won a war. George W. Bush is everything Democrats have not been--bold, decisive, uncomplicated, a man of real convictions who has not been afraid to take unpopular positions. Furthermore, unlike his father, this Bush is a political animal. He has a clever team. If the Democrats do happen to find a winning issue, you can be sure that Karl Rove, the President's strategist, will figure out a way to trump or co-opt it (as he did with education and Medicare prescription-drug benefits in the election of 2000). And the Democrats enter the fray with all the shape and substance of fog. "People have no idea what we stand for," says Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. "They have a vague sense that we were against the war in Iraq and a vaguer sense that things were somehow better economically when we were in power. Beyond that, nothing."