The Race for the Democratic Nomination
John Wojcik

Things looked bleak for the democratic hopefuls at this point in 1991. The popularity of the sitting president, coupled with the absence of an appealing alternative, left most forecasting an easy victory for the incumbent. Editorials went so far as to suggest that the Democratic Party not bother to nominate anyone; to concede defeat and focus on 1996. A Saturday Night Live sketch portrayed an early debate wherein the handful of democratic candidates clashed to avoid the ignominy of the nomination and concomitant defeat. It wasn't until months later, as the economy continued to falter, that Bill Clinton emerged, from virtual anonymity, as a powerful rival.

Numerous political observers have appropriately highlighted the striking similarities between this year's early election outlook and that of 1991. These similarities rightly serve as cause for hope among those who wish Jr. to meet the fate of his father. The extent of Dubya's vulnerability, however, is not revealed in these similarities alone. Recent polls, compared to those asking the same question in 1991, indicate that registered voters view George W. Bush's position as more precarious than that of his father in 1991. 50% of those polled on September 9, 2003 felt that a Democrat could win in 2004; only 42% felt, at about this time in 1991, that Bush Sr. was susceptible to defeat.

George W. is dealing with a moribund economy that most voters attribute to his fiscal ineptitude. His 'compassionate Conservative' façade seems to be crumbling as Americans have come to the slow realization that his tax cuts have not delivered the promised relief to 'all Americans.' Concerns over domestic issues-unemployment, the deficit, and the bleeding of vital government programs-have conspired, with his deception and lack of foresight in Iraq, to severely erode his popularity. Thus just as the democratic race has commenced, Bush has become a more vulnerable target than ever before during his administration.

The democrats have sought, thus far, to capitalize on Bush's newfound vulnerability. In the first two debates intra-party conflict was largely muted in favor of pointed criticism of Bush. Bush's recent request for $87 billion was used to highlight both his poor management of the economy and his failure to establish a clear postwar program. Despite these criticisms however, all of the candidates from Congress, aside from Kucinich, said they would likely vote for the $87 billion resolution. Though they emphasized that such a vote would be necessary to support the troops, and insisted that they would demand an increased international presence, such capitulation contrasted markedly with their words of reproach.

Criticism of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy was more consistent. Each candidate cited a need for some form of repeal, though opinions varied as to whether all of the cuts should be rolled back. Such disagreements, however, never came to the fore. Virtually all animosity was directed toward Bush, often in the form of choreographed one-liners characterizing the current administration as an unqualified failure.

Though the character of the debates was genial, they were not entirely free of sparring. Governor Howard Dean, the early frontrunner, was challenged by Senator Joe Liebermann on both domestic and foreign policy. In the first debate, Liebermann suggested that Dean's economic proposals, which insist on strict environmental and labor standards for trade agreements, would result in economic depression. In the second, Liebermann's critique focused on Dean's persistent opposition to war in Iraq and his vow to be an even-handed broker in the Middle East Peace process. Liebermann, who has maintained for some time that Dean's position on Iraq is harmful to the party, attacked his position on Israel, maintaining that he called for what amounted to a reversal of the position of every US president of the past 50 years. Dean quickly retorted that his view was consistent with Clinton's, then turned the discussion back to Bush to curb the divisive tone and refocus on their unified purpose.

The short exchange was likely indicative of the type of disagreement that will be seen in the near future. Lieberman, who has repeatedly stressed his close ties to the DLC, continues to work hard to present himself as the 'center' candidate. As the competition becomes more heated, similar challenges to Dean will likely emerge from Gephardt, Kerry and Edwards, all of whom are perceived to be nearer the ideological center. Future challenges, like Lieberman's, will be more symbolic than substantial, amplifying minor differences into important conflicts. In fact, Dean, after receiving a rebuke from Congressional party members, maintained that his statement had been blown out of proportion, and emphasized that he did not wish to stray from the Party's position.

Such a strategic retreat from a 'maverick' candidate is particularly disheartening. The absence of strong, substantive clashes reveals the relatively narrow scope of the democratic platform. Political discourse has contracted about the center, leaving anyone seeking a progressive agenda disappointed. A quick glance at health care proposals provides an interesting example. A recent review of the proposals of eight of the candidates (Al Sharpton has yet to offer a plan), conducted by 10 health policy experts with diverse political backgrounds, gave each plan a score of 1-5 in a number of categories. Richard Gephardt's plan received the highest mark for breadth of coverage, a 4.5 for eventually reaching 97 percent of Americans. Dean, the more 'liberal' candidate, garnered a slightly lower rating with a plan that will reach somewhere around 30 million of the currently 41 million uninsured. Proposals by Lieberman, Graham, and Edwards are even more modest. As noted by Matthew Miller in a New York Times editorial, even the most 'liberal' of these plans does not meet that unveiled by Nixon in the early 70's.

An analysis of other issues reveals much of the same. Among the mainstream candidates there has been little consistent, vociferous opposition to Bush's perpetual state of war and the associated abuses of civil liberties. No major contender supports the establishment of a living wage, and few offer reasonable proposals to rescue failing inner-city schools. All of these positions are evidence of a fundamental weakness on the left. The only democratic candidate with a thoroughly progressive agenda, Kucinich, most recognize as being completely unelectable.

The willingness of the contenders stick to weak policy proposals is an unfortunate indication of the extent to which the Democratic Party has allowed the right to determine the scope of political dialogue. Rather than recognizing Bush's dwindling popularity as an opportunity to press for substantial changes, the Democratic candidates have adopted a narrow critical role that lacks significant ambition. Though the possibility for a drastic shift remains (the recent announcement of Wesley Clark has given some cause for hope), the discussion to date indicates that it is unlikely. This is disheartening for the many who accept the imperative to remove Bush but wish that, in doing so, they might be able to embrace a dynamic agenda founded on progressive economic and social policies.