Notes on the Atrocities
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Wednesday, May 07, 2003  

Presidential Candidates, Part 3 (the broken party)

There are three considerations for the Democrats as they enter the ’04 presidential race:

1. Can we win?
2. If we can’t win, what’s our strategy?
3. What’s the Democratic message?

Can the Democrats win? No, for a couple of reasons. Their biggest problem is George W. Bush—a problem over which they have no control. As long as Americans are scared, W’s their man (see below). There are a couple of factors that might shift this disadvantage: serious trouble in Iraq, terror at home—but the Democrats don’t want these problems, either. The problem over which they have control is their own weakness, demonstrated beautifully by their array of listless candidates. No one in the Democratic party has lead since Clinton, and of this crowd, only Dean seems able. They’ve been playing prevent defense for so long, it’s all they know (it worked as well for them as it does for NFL teams).

What’s the strategy? The Democrats need a serious retooling. On every single issue except fiscal responsibility, they play defense. They’re the party of not-Republicans. The entire political table is set, and Democrats creep up to it like a hungry dog. This is no approach for leaders to take: they need to set their own table. If they ever wish to control the national dialogue, they’ll have to start redefining their positions. Not redefining them in contrast to the Republicans, but on their own merit. (And if they do have even the faintest hope of winning, they need to redefine national security first. And quickly. Though none of the candidates seems capable of this.)

If the presidency is lost, this is a great opportunity to run on issues the Democrats want to run on—it will set the stage for future elections.

What’s the Democratic message? Really, what is it? No one knows, least of all the Democratic National Committee. George W. Bush came into office and completely redefined national and foreign policy. He’s been one of the most activist presidents we’ve had. If the Democrats hope to compete with his new vision for America, they can’t try to out-Bush him, as Lieberman does. Nor can they accept his definition of the game and try to suggest that a slightly more modest approach is better (essentially the Democratic approach). They need to change the discourse completely—not from a list of policies, but from a philosophical point of view. Right now the entire debate is in the hands of the neocons. The Democratic approach over the past two years has been paleo-con, not neo-liberal. What is neo-liberal? The Dems better figure it out, and quickly.

Right now, the presidential race is a four-man game (Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Edwards)—five if you count Dean’s long shot bid. If the Dems aren’t careful, one of those four is actually going to become the candidate, dooming the party to another cycle of aimlessness and failure. There’s very little time to find a serious candidate who can energize and lead. (No, Graham’s not that man.) If no one can beat Bush, all the more reason to find that candidate. Time’s running short…

posted by Jeff | 1:19 PM |
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