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But it is the pedestrian application of Shrum's art that has created a generation of strait-jacketed Democrats who think small, who sound as if they were animatronic, who are willing to bend themselves into pretzels for the love of frenzied, myopic special interests, who think that smart politics means complaining about the cost of Bush's trip to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln rather than finding some alternative and more inspirational way to capture the public's attention. If the Democrats want to transcend their perpetual pickiness, their inability to rise above the bite-size, they are going to have to find a candidate talented and fearless enough to meet the public without having to consult a focus group first. In the end, talent can make the most carefully massaged message sound fresh, as Clinton almost always could.
There is much that we don't know about this election. There may be another terrorist attack, or not. The economy may sag, or not. The President may try one too many cowboy tricks, or he may simply be seen as the guy who got us through a tough time. The country post--Sept. 11 may be entirely different from the country before the outrage occurred. It may be a more serious electorate, less tolerant of political boilerplate, more favorably disposed toward serious governance and ready to make sacrifices for the common good. Or not. If the world stays quiet and the economy picks up, the Democrats may face an unbeatable incumbent in 2004, no matter how hard they try. All the more reason to act as Democrats haven't in quite a while: Speak your minds, dream a little, tell people some truths they don't want to hear. Get angry. Be funny. But, above all, provide a real alternative. The Republicans offer smaller government. The Democrats, at their best, offer serious government. A direct clash on those principles would be an argument worth having, and one the country badly needs.