Democratic challengers: A preview

Posted: Jul 02, 2003 12:00 AM

America has big issues again. President Bush's doctrine of preemption is the sort of weighty issue that can define a political party for a generation. Think of the economic angst that Ronald Reagan tapped into in 1980; the row of tin pot dictators that Richard Nixon used to his advantage in 1968 and the sort of civil discord that defined John F. Kennedy in 1960.

So, how has the Democratic Party responded? The answer is clear. They haven't. Rather than galvanize around a broad overarching message designed to lead the nation into a new era, the Democratic primary is fracturing into several single issue campaigns.

A preview:

JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Slow to mobilize, because of his commitment not to run if Gore entered the presidential race, Lieberman's name recognition still has him cresting atop the challengers. Widely admired for the breadth and depth of his legislative efforts, Lieberman's liberal domestic orthodoxy and hawkish stance on foreign affairs firmly entrenches him in the soft, gooey center. So far he's taken the lead on deconstructing the Bush tax plan. This is of absolute importance since the tax plan is Bush's domestic agenda. Sadly, even at this late date in the American empire, people still vote their prejudices. Some commentators feel this will hurt Lieberman, an orthodox Jew. More damaging is his inability to manufacture a good pseudo event. A capacity to marry power and glamour is essential to the modern politician, who must use image as well as words to solicit support.

RICHARD GEPHARDT: The conventional wisdom over the past year was that Dick Gephardt's labor connections and fund-raising ability made him the Democrat's most viable candidate. But the summer has just begun and already he has the scent of weakness about him. Why? Early stage campaigning is about potential force. Candidates aren't required to tell the public much and can get by on the ability to merely suggest greatness, or at very least seem more likable than the other guys (see George W Bush in 2000). Gephardt, by contrast, is a 2-by-4 with policy ideas. Like Lieberman, he fails the image manipulation test.

JOHN EDWARDS: Baltimore scribe H.L. Mencken once advised a writer not "to preach today what he only learned yesterday." I herewith suggest the words be applied to Edwards. He was the first on the scene in Afghanistan, wagging his finger at the president while reducing complex foreign relations issues into sound bites. Subsequent front-running on Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering and homeland security ensued. The leading pop culture magazines found it dazzling and hailed Edwards as the next Clinton. Perhaps what they meant was, he is unimpressive as a leader, but a triumph as a pop culture phenomenon.

The press' admiration came spiraling downward when Tim Russert recently showed Edwards to be bumbling and fairly unintelligible when forced to move 25 words beyond his standard sound bites. Nonetheless, given our politician's increasing reliance on media imagery to legitimize their ideas, Edwards's populist flair bodes well.

HOWARD DEAN: Every four years the press anoints some outside candidate "the maverick de cool." This year it's Howard Dean. Lacking solid name recognition, Dean's gotten ahead by shocking people into paying attention. So far, he's taken the lead on interesting and innovative policy ideas from universal health care to deconstructing the Bush tax plan to extending full marriage rights to homosexual couples. Dean also benefited by making himself the most accessible candidate to the press. (This worked for McCain in 2000).

Ultimately, Dean's strong gay rights stance will hurt his party by uniting the Catholic vote in opposition for the first time since the 1950s.

REV. AL SHARPTON: The top five reasons Sharpton is unelectable: 1) Tawana Brawley; 2) His pulpit demeanor doesn't play in the mainstream; 3) His utter lack of anything resembling legislative experience; 4) Focuses almost exclusively on niche issues; 5) His hair.

Ironically these are also his five greatest strengths. Sharpton is a cult of personality. That's where he gets his juice. Like Ross Perot in 1992, he will add kick to the debate. Look for Sharpton to impact the debates by pushing "minority issues" onto center stage.

Polls indicate that the post-Sept. 11 unity is splintering over Bush's preemption doctrine and his tax-cut plan. Thus far, the Democratic challengers have failed to take advantage of the trend. Unable to criticize Bush's military leadership and unwilling to unite on a domestic agenda, the Democratic Party is floundering without any broad principle to unite these disparate ideas.

Of course, it's early. But shouldn't we expect a little more than finger wagging from some of our country's leading men?