By Timothy P. Carney
Published 5/26/2004 12:07:35 AM
The Democrats should have picked Howard Dean, or at least John Edwards, if they wanted to beat President Bush. In making Kerry their standard-bearer in the presidential race, Democrats have repeated their mistake from 2002 -- failing to offer clear alternatives to the Republican Party's stances on key issues. They have misplayed their hand, discarding the aces for a pair of twos, and as such are in the wretched position of waking up each morning praying for bad news. For Bush to lose in November, Democrats need either Vietnam in 1968, or the economy in 1980. In other words, Bush will win unless things are terrible.
The Democrats' error can be traced back to the first moments after the 2002 elections, when the party, under Terry McAuliffe's leadership, made history by losing seats in the House and losing control of the Senate during the first mid-term election of a sitting GOP President. Democrats that year offered no real alternative plans to Republican governance. They complained plenty about the GOP, pointed to Enron and unemployment, and cried about tax cuts for the rich. But voters on Election Day had no reason to suspect Democrats would make things any better.
Right after the election Rep. Ken Bentsen (D-Tex.), who lost his Senate primary earlier that year, told a reporter, "The Democrats tried the Neville Chamberlain approach and it was a disaster." To change course, the Democrats did not, however, draft up bold policy proposals that they could tout come election time. No, they elected San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi as their new House leader. In the 18 months since their loss, the Democrats haven't gotten more progressive or more cutting-edge; rather, they've become more shrill.
KERRY MAKES AN ODD choice for a party trying to beat the President on the issue of the war because, frankly, it appears that Bush took all of Kerry's advice on the subject. David Freddoso laid this out well in Human Events a few months back with an online piece headlined "John Kerry, Bush's Advisor On Iraq." Kerry's September 6, 2002 New York Times op-ed is full of prescriptions that either immediately inspired the Bush Administration or were stolen from White House strategy memos.
The highlights: "If Saddam Hussein is unwilling to bend to the international community's already existing order, then he will have invited enforcement." And: "even if that enforcement is mostly at the hands of the United States, a right we retain even if the Security Council fails to act." The path Bush followed to war may have been a flawed one, but it's hard to go on the attack when your nominee advocated exactly that path.
Still, the Democrats attack. They rile up the base and generate visceral hatred towards this President, although it is unclear what they would do differently. Did Bush lie us into war? Well, then, so did Kerry, who in 1998 said, "Saddam Hussein is pursuing a program to build weapons of mass destruction." Edwards and Dean both railed against the war. Both men offered distinct foreign policies from Bush's. Either of them, right now, would be able to say with credibility, "this war was a mistake, and George W. Bush is to blame." Kerry can't credibly do that.
To win on the war issue, Kerry is forced to lie, flip-flop, or make the following argument: "I would have done the same thing as Bush, I just would have done it right." For that line to gain traction, voters need to believe Bush is incompetent, and that would require things being much worse than they are today. Likewise, gas prices could be an Achilles Heel for Bush, if only Kerry were not the nominee. High prices at the pump are the intersection of the economy and the war. But Kerry (a) had the same Iraq policy, (b) opposes domestic oil drilling and (c) opposes windmills when they harm his view from Martha's Vineyard.
The economy issue presents more of the same. People feel uneasy about the nation's financial health, but how does Kerry differ from Bush? He would raise taxes, but only a little, and only on the very rich. How taxing the rich will make us all richer still needs to be explained.
AT THIS POINT, DEMOCRATS are like very bad contestants on "The Price is Right." If President Bush has bid $500, the Democrats have responded by bidding $499. Bush could be way off target on Iraq and the economy, but Kerry has saddled up so close, in everything but his rhetoric, that he is in no position to capitalize. The party seems to think its problem in 2002 was that Democrats were not nasty enough. Instead of replacing Chamberlain with Churchill, they've replaced him with James Carville.
Timothy P. Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.