Return to Nicholas Johnson's opening Web page www.nicholasjohnson.org

No Will to Win?
Bob Herbert

The New York Times
December 12, 2003
p. A35 (National edition)

[Copyright 2003 by the New York Times]


The problem is the party itself.  . . .  The Republicans are hijacking elections and redistricting the country and looting the Treasury and ignoring the Constitution and embittering our allies, while the Democrats are let's see, fumbling their way . . ..  Any Democrat will be a long shot next year. Without an infusion of new voters (young people, white working families, Hispanics and women) and another huge turnout by African-Americans, the Democrats are doomed. . . . But the Democrats need more than a candidate or two. The party needs a plan. It needs a coherent, compelling, convincing narrative that shows how voters and the nation would be better off . . . than they are now. . . . [T]he Democrats need to give voters . . . new reasons to hope. That can only be done by a thoughtful . . . and creative party. A party with a plan . . ..  A party that I don't see at the moment.

                                -- Bob Herbert

Ready, aim. . . .

The Democratic Party's circular firing squad has assembled. Everybody's angry with everybody else. Joe Lieberman is trying to extricate the knife that, in his view, Al Gore deposited in his back. Al Sharpton is accusing Mr. Gore of engaging in the kind of "bossism" that belongs "in the other party."

The Gore and Clinton families are morphing into the Hatfields and the McCoys. And the runaway Dean machine, which has shown an impressive ability to amass campaign cash and early primary support, is now generating prodigious amounts of fear and loathing as well.

Those cackles of glee you hear in the background are coming from the White House.

One very prominent Southern Democrat, who asked not to be identified, said of Howard Dean, "This guy will take us down like the Titanic. "

Representative Charles Rangel, who endorsed Gen. Wesley Clark at a press conference in Harlem yesterday (just 24 hours after Mr. Gore endorsed Dr. Dean in Harlem), said he didn't think Dr. Dean was a sure loser. But he was openly contemptuous of the Gore-Dean alliance.

"I'm here for General Clark, and people are asking me questions about Gore and Dean," he said. "The best I can figure out, they got in the cab and told the cabbie, `Take us to Harvard' and the cabbie screwed up and took them to Harlem."

The Dems may indeed sink like the Titanic next year. But I don't think Dr. Dean is the problem at least, not yet. The problem is the party itself. God and the Republicans have blessed the Democrats with the high ground on one important issue after another, from the war in Iraq to national economic policy to health care to education to the environment.

But like the Union general George McClellan, the Democrats have been too timid to take full advantage. It's a party for the faint of heart. The Republicans are hijacking elections and redistricting the country and looting the Treasury and ignoring the Constitution and embittering our allies, while the Democrats are let's see, fumbling their way through an incoherent primary season and freaking out over Al Gore's endorsement of Howard Dean.

One of the reasons Dr. Dean is doing so much better at this point than his primary opponents has been his combativeness, his willingness to attack and bluntly confront President Bush and his policies.

"Our leaders have developed a vocabulary which has become meaningless to the American people," he said in his announcement speech in June. "There is no greater example of this than a self-described conservative Republican president who creates the greatest deficits in the history of America. Or a president who boasts of a Clear Skies Initiative which allows far more pollution into our air. Or a president who co-opts from an advocacy organization the phrase `No Child Left Behind,' while paying for irresponsible tax cuts by cutting children's health care."

I don't know if Howard Dean would be able to beat George Bush. But those who are dismissing him as a sure loser should give us the name of the candidate who is so obviously more competitive. Is it Senator Lieberman? I'd like to see the odds out of Vegas if he were to go against President Bush head to head.

What about John Kerry? He might make a good president but, frankly, he looks lost in the maze of primaries. General Clark? John Edwards?

Any Democrat will be a long shot next year. Without an infusion of new voters (young people, white working families, Hispanics and women) and another huge turnout by African-Americans, the Democrats are doomed.

The strongest ticket might be Dean-Clark. But the Democrats need more than a candidate or two. The party needs a plan. It needs a coherent, compelling, convincing narrative that shows how voters and the nation would be better off under Dr. Dean or General Clark or Dick Gephardt take your pick than they are now.

To regain control of the White House, the Democrats need to give voters, who are frightened by terrorism and disoriented by the pace of 21st-century events, new reasons to hope. That can only be done by a thoughtful, united, energized and creative party. A party with a plan and a ferocious will to win.

A party that I don't see at the moment.
 
 
 
 
 
 

atching presidential politics lately, I've been thinking back to when I was 13 years old and had my heart broken for the first time.

It was 1972, and I was antiwar and infatuated with Senator George McGovern. But as I handed out McGovern leaflets in Yamhill County, Ore., I was greeted as if I were the Antichrist. Soon afterward, Mr. McGovern was defeated in a landslide.

As Howard Dean will probably be, if the Democrats nominate him.

It is, of course, the Democrats' privilege to stand on principle, embrace the man they admire most and leap off a cliff together. Political parties have a hoary tradition of committing principled suicide, as the G.O.P. did with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and, most masochistically, the Democrats did three times with William Jennings Bryan from 1896 to 1908.

Yet my guess is that the Democratic faithful are being not so much high-minded as muddle-headed. Many Democrats so despise President Bush that they don't appreciate what a strong candidate he will be in November, and they don't grasp how poorly Mr. Dean is likely to fare in battleground states.

Mr. Bush beat Mr. Dean, 52 percent to 41 percent, in a recent Pew poll. Meanwhile, the economy appears to be strengthening in time for the election. Of the 51 economic forecasters surveyed by Blue Chip Economic Indicators, all but one expect the economy to grow more rapidly in 2004 than it has in the last 33 months.

Against the Bush juggernaut, Mr. Dean faces three disadvantages.

First, geography. The only Democrats who have won the popular presidential vote since John Kennedy took office (when the Southern boom started) have all been Southerners: Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Swing states are mostly in the South and Midwest, so the key for both parties is to find a candidate who can seduce "Reagan Democrats," like Ohio steelworkers and Tennessee tobacco farmers. Not another Michael Dukakis.

Second, style. Angry bluster rouses the party faithful, but it frightens centrists. The last two presidents who were fervently hated, Richard Nixon and Mr. Clinton, both won two terms; today's liberal disgust could do the same for Mr. Bush by leading to a nominee like Mr. Dean, who warms the hearts of the party's core but leaves others cold. Furious liberals already bear some responsibility for the situation because enough of them voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 to sink Al Gore.

Moreover, Mr. Dean is smart, but he knows it. America's heartland oozes suspicion of Eastern elitists, and Mr. Dean's cockiness would exacerbate that suspicion. President Clinton oozed charm and was fluent in Southern ("even a blind hog can find an acorn," he'd say scornfully), while Mr. Dean needs a Berlitz course in self-deprecating folksiness.

Mr. Dean's recent remarks about Southern men and Confederate flags showed both his awareness of this problem and his ineptitude in addressing it. He also described the episode as a "huge contretemps," and I seriously doubt that anybody who publicly uses the word "contretemps" can ever be elected president.

You get the feeling that if Mr. Dean and Mr. Bush were stuck together in a small Missouri town, Mr. Dean would lecture farmers about Thomas Paine's writings, while Mr. Bush would have the cafe crowd in stitches by doing impersonations of Mr. Dean.

The third problem is biography. Mr. Dean may be the one Democrat who is even more blue-blooded than Mr. Bush and who has an even lamer excuse for dodging Vietnam. Mr. Dean grew up on Park Avenue in an old aristocratic family, and after getting his medical deferment from the draft, he moved to Aspen to ski. Unlike other politicians, Mr. Dean doesn't even pretend to be particularly religious, and that's a major political weakness in the battleground states.

Don't get me wrong. I agree with Mr. Dean on many issues, and I admire his willingness to oppose our Iraq invasion from the beginning. But shiny-eyed teenagers who distribute leaflets for him in places like Yamhill County are going to get very cold stares and end up heartbroken.

If the Democrats are serious about governing, they should remember the words of one of their nominees, Adlai Stevenson. After one of his typically brilliant campaign speeches, someone shouted out to Stevenson from the crowd that he had the votes of all thinking Americans.

Stevenson shouted back, saying that wasn't enough: "I need a majority!"



Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Posted for educational purposes only

The New York Times newspaper: http://www.nytimes.com

The New York Times subscriptions: http://www.nytimes.com/ads/nytcirc/index.html

The New York Times, general information about Web site: help@nytimes.com


[20031209]