Illegitimi non carborundum

Dec. 1, 2003

Staggering toward '04


December already -- Election Day 2004 is a bare eleven months away. And what have we got? President Bush swooping down on Baghdad, turkey for the troops -- pure re-election photo-op stuff. On the Democratic side, what Barbara Bush called, I think, a "sorry bunch." Sigh.

On the issues?

Al Gore's populism didn't carry the day in 2000 because voters aren't populists. Saturated by advertising and "entertainment" that brutally pushes the dream of the upper middle class, people don't want to hear that the rich should be soaked, since everyone these days believes that one day -- soon -- he'll be rich.

Without populism, the Democrats are scrambling for a new message, a new base, a new everything. The long-dead New Deal coalition -- finished off by the one-two punch of Nixon (1968) and Reagan (1980) -- is a distant, impossible memory.

The nine Democratic candidates therefore have their work cut out for them.


Howard Dean is at the top of the Democratic heap mostly because his early identity, crafted around opposition to the Iraq war, was clear and strong enough for primary activists to understand. It helps that Dean has a forceful, no-nonsense personality and has been unafraid to sail into the Bush administration. As time goes on, though, Dean's populist soundings -- repeal the Bush tax cut! -- will land him into the familiar old Democratic quicksand. Now that he's the one to watch, Dean should look to broaden his appeal to the great seething mass that will probably go for W., the Great Protector. He's already started veering to the center, announcing that he'll be targeting Confederate flag-wavers.

One Democrat who's started in the middle is Wesley Clark, latterly some sort of admiral-general. Perhaps thinking that the many stars on his shoulders make him invulnerable to the weak-sister taunting directed at Dean (who was busy skiing on a supposedly bad back during Vietnam), Clark has positioned himself as a modern Eisenhower, a neither-fish-nor-fowl pseudo-politician who can bring order to perilous times. Clark's inexperience, however, is a problem -- so is his late entry to the race, and so, as recently reported in the New Yorker, is the opposition of many Clinton-era Pentagon types. Clark, it seems, has been angling for this job since West Point. Too much ambition?

Speaking of the ambitious military-but-not, there's also John Kerry, who as a war hero-turned-protestor perhaps partly inspired Forrest Gump. His other credentials -- lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, long-serving senator -- are sufficient. Unfortunately, Kerry hasn't connected with an audience, and his campaign is in turmoil. As the once-leading candidate of the Democratic establishment, he can't yet be counted out. The trouble is not only that Kerry can't be everything to everybody (or to enough people) -- it's that he hasn't even really been something to somebody.

Probably not

Dick Gephardt might once have been counted near the top, but Dean has nicked many of the important union endorsements that Gephardt figured would be his lifeblood. The unions, for their part, figure to back the front-runner, which makes sense, but that leaves Gephardt on perilous ground, pushing expensive, old-line Democratic policies that can't win. Not to say that they shouldn't; everyone would be better off with Gephardt's health-insurance plan than with Bush's. For some reason, though, selling health insurance is harder than selling "not-health insurance," even as the ranks of the uninsured swell. That may play well in Des Moines, Dick, but what after Iowa?

Ah, to have Clinton again. John Edwards apparently thought that he'd be the next best thing: coiffed hair, Southern accent, under 50. But this is a crowded field, and Edwards doesn't have Clintonian charm to carry him above the pack.

Remember Joe Lieberman? Neither do I.


Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton -- these men are, respectively, the Far Left-Winger and the Black Candidate. I wonder how much longer America will have to go before we can have a candidate who simply happens to be black (we came close in 1996, when Colin Powell thought about it). The Far Left-Winger, though, will probably be with us a long time, and this time it's Kucinich. He's there to yell at and generally embarrass the credible candidates, and has done probably about as well as can be expected, considering that the leader, Dean, isn't the type to get tongue-tied. Sharpton has provided some comic relief but little in the way of statesmanship. Dancing on stage with James Brown is a plus in my book, but it makes an entertainer, not a president.

And then there's Carol Moseley Braun, who could be the most interesting candidate in the race, if only because it is entirely unclear why she is running; all of the traditional candidate-roles have been taken. Actually, the Eccentric slot has opened up (Bob Graham, who compulsively records every single minute detail of his life in little journals, quit the race), but Moseley Braun, to strike out in that direction, would have to yodel or strip or something, and she has shown no such inclinations.

What to watch for

Primary season gets underway soon soon soon, which means that coverage will be increasing, which means that even the teeny-tiny will be magnified to Jovian proportions. The fringe will be trimmed, the possibles will push generally left, and Bush will seek to distract attention by doing lots of "presidential" things, such as signing bills that mention Medicare and other Democratic words. Watch this space for further trenchant analysis as the season staggers on. SV

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About Subjectverb

Subjectverb is written and published by Eric J. Plosky. He has an extensive background in writing and journalism and is a media veteran, appearing in People, The Economist, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and Boston Phoenix, and on National Public Radio. At MIT he won the 1998 Writing Prize and wrote for The Tech; his first play was produced in 2002 in New York. Eric hosts Free Transfer, a live, weekly news and variety television program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lives. He also works in Cambridge, for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Volpe Center.

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