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
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
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
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
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.