It is almost pathetic to see the emerging lineup of Democratic presidential hopefuls slobbering all over themselves in search of a defining issue -- anything -- to justify their pursuit of the land's highest office.
When you watch these guys explaining their decisions to run you can't help but get the impression they are trying to convince themselves they have a legitimate reason to displace an exceedingly popular president during wartime.
Some weeks ago it was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry riding the Sunday morning talk-show circuit protesting, as if to say, "I'm serious about this. I really do want to be president. I do, I do, I do." It was rather embarrassing to witness this aloof blueblood holding himself out as the champion of the common man.
This past weekend we saw the same theme, the same noticeable discomfort -- just a different name and face -- as North Carolina Senator John Edwards meandered through the Sunday shows looking for a reason to run. As with the Kerry interviews, we come away from the spectacle wondering just what, precisely, is the motivation (other than self-aggrandizement) compelling this man to seek the presidency.
I'm sure the same theme will play out with all the other Democratic contenders as they announce their respective quests for that common dream. It all seems so artificial and contrived -- like it just happens to be the time for the opposition party to put forth its obligatory candidates, whether or not these candidates have concluded, in their own minds, that they're ready for prime time.
There's an explanation for this phenomenon beyond simply that the Democratic Party has no particularly good candidates right now. Namely, the party is suffering from an idea deficit, which is why all of its candidates thus far have given the appearance they are secretly ashamed of what they're peddling.
Take national security, for starters, where Democrats try in vain to hold themselves out as the party to be trusted in times of war. They mouth glib generalities about Americans being no more secure than we were before September 11, without telling us why. They are reduced to pitiably second-guessing the military's failure to kill bin Laden and to decrying the continued unrest in Afghanistan following our rout of the Taliban and terrorist training camps.
They want it both ways with Iraq, complaining that Bush is too aggressive with Saddam Hussein, while insisting that they, too, by gosh, would be tough on the genocidal dictator. Right. They are more at home with the European Left in denouncing the United States' "unilateralism" than they are with the beliefs of the majority of the American people, who understand that Saddam must go.
And, they quibble over the administration's "inconsistent" policies toward North Korea, as if foreign tyrants are entitled to constitutional rights. Perhaps just one among this august field of Democratic contenders will come up with a coherent alternative for any of these components of national security before 2004.
How about economic issues? Again, Democrats find themselves in a quandary. They have nothing to offer here either because they have no clue, economically speaking, why Bill Clinton presided over such prosperity during most of his tenure, so they don't know how to repeat it. As they privately scratch their heads over this serendipitous gift, they can only come up with one possible economic theory that would allow them to claim ownership of it.
They say they finally balanced the budget, which supposedly reduced interest rates, which led to economic growth. The problem is that most credible economists don't believe there's a causal relationship between balanced budgets and lower interest rates. Worse, empirical, historical evidence fails to substantiate the connection.
But the main reason the Democrats can't take much credit for growth in the '90s is that they weren't primarily responsible for getting the budget into balance. Bill Clinton raised taxes, but he also tried to increase federal spending radically, through federalizing health care, his economic stimulus plan and other federal enormities. The Democrats owe Newt Gingrich and the Republican congressional class of 1994 for bringing spending under control.
Unless things go way south with the war and the economy, Democrats will be in trouble because they have no constructive solutions. So they'll fall back on their tired strategy of demonizing Republicans and scaring and dividing voters, along economic, race, gender and religious lines. The more bereft they are of ideas, the nastier they will get. Which means it's not going to be pretty.