Ballot Box

Democratic Derby

How Bush’s challengers are positioning themselves for 2004.

This week, several of the Democrats likely to run for president in 2004 spoke before a convention of the Democratic Leadership Council, the influential centrist group, in New York City. Here’s a sketch of what each contestant said in this beauty pageant, and how he’s positioning himself for the race. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt was the last of the five to speak; an analysis of his speech will be added when a transcript becomes available. Also not included is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who gave a well-received lunch-time keynote—on the theory that she’s not a likely presidential candidate this time around.

Tom Daschle
To Bush, Daschle is a challenger. But to fellow Democrats, he’s the incumbent, the guy who’s been running the only federal institution they control. He doesn’t have to limit his remarks to what he would do if he were president or what’s wrong with Bush. Daschle has his own record to defend and promote. In this speech, he touts “products of our leadership,” such as the patients’ bill of rights, campaign reform, corporate accountability legislation, trade negotiation authority, and terrorism insurance.

All the Democrats talk about leadership and Bush’s lack thereof. For most, this is a way of making government intervention sound manly. But for Daschle, it’s a self-plug: He’s literally the Democratic leader, and don’t you forget it. “Democrats hold the gavel in the Senate,” he notes with pride. He pats Lieberman, Kerry, and Edwards on the back but identifies each of them with one issue, making clear that they’re able lieutenants but he’s the general.

On the ideological spectrum, Daschle plants his flag … nowhere. He talks about bipartisanship, splitting the difference, and getting things done. In the free-trade debate between leftists and rightists, he says, “Neither side was right.” His tone is practical: The problem with Bush is that he lacks “real solutions” and isn’t keeping things “under control.” Daschle never mentions Bill Clinton but seems to be rerunning Clinton’s 1992 campaign: growth, jobs, and getting the country moving.

Daschle has kinks to work out. Some of his complaints about Bush’s policies seem technical if not trivial, and he’s so absorbed in Senate business that he can’t get his head out of Washington-speak. He opens with a nod to Sen. Jim Jeffords’, I-Vt., party switch, talks about COBRA tax credits (which help people retain their health insurance after losing their jobs), and mentions Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., three times, as though everyone would be familiar with these names. In fairness, Daschle was speaking to an audience mainly composed of political insiders—but those insiders were watching to see how the act would play to wider audiences.

Joe Lieberman
Lieberman is the peeping preacher of this race. Everything’s a moral issue. He never mentions a bad deed or even an unwise policy without plenty of sermonizing. Corporate cheaters “broke our basic social contract” and failed “to play by the rules and honor their word,” asserts Lieberman. Bush isn’t just stiffing education; he’s “breaking [his] promise” to fund it.

Tactically, this moralizing helps Lieberman fold today’s hot issue, corporate sleaze, into the values message he has trumpeted in the Senate and in his vice presidential campaign. Cultural and financial decency go hand in hand, he argues: “Business has responsibilities that go beyond their own bottom line. That’s why we berated the major entertainment companies for mass marketing mass murder to our children.”

Having established himself as Mr. Morals, Lieberman comes off as more pious than political. Bush’s efforts to blame Clinton for the stock bubble are shameful “excuses,” he says. On corporate chicanery, he laments, “The President has shown little or none of the moral clarity and strength of purpose he demonstrated in the aftermath of September 11th.” This moral syrup coats Lieberman so thoroughly that he can praise Clinton four times (no other candidate mentions Clinton more than once) without getting his image dirty.

The problem with Lieberman’s synthesis of corporate and cultural decency is that he ends up sounding like an all-purpose busybody. He’s a Democratic meddler in your economic life and a Republican meddler in your religious life. “I wish that the business executives who have betrayed our trust had remembered what Moses and Jesus each instruct us,” he says. SEC, meet WWJD.

John Kerry
Kerry is the war candidate. He had a great thing going while the war on terrorism was hot—he was the only Democrat with a heroic military record—and he isn’t ready to relinquish that advantage to a war on accountants. His message to this audience of presumptively hawkish Democrats is that the party mustn’t lose sight of military and foreign policy. “We dare not avoid discussing two-thirds of the [president’s] job,” he argues.

For Kerry, everything fits into a war or security metaphor: “job security, income security, retirement security, health security, physical security, national security,” and especially “renewable energy sources.” Democrats must fight, battle, and get tough. Other Democrats might shrink from criticizing Bush’s conduct of the Afghan war, but not Kerry. “Our Party will never surrender or submit—not on any issue,” he declares. He blasts Bush for letting Osama Bin Laden slip away at Tora Bora. The White House must be itching to fire back at Kerry for his criticisms of the war. That’s exactly the one-on-one fight he wants.

Kerry is right that military and foreign policy end up consuming most of the president’s time. But his apolitical pose about these subjects is ridiculous. The candidate who talks loudest about ignoring “polls and pundits” is almost always the candidate most attentive to polls and pundits. Kerry wins that test hands down. He says he’s defying “a new conventional wisdom of pundits, pollsters, and strategists who argue as a matter of political strategy that Democrats should be the party of domestic issues only.” Translation: The old conventional wisdom—that the Democrats needed a candidate with a war record—was more helpful to Kerry’s political strategy.

John Edwards
From this speech, it appears that Edwards intends to run as a younger, gentiler Lieberman. He uses the word “values” more often than Lieberman does, not to mention “faith, family, and country.” Like Lieberman, he makes every issue moral: education, environmental regulation, global warming—even tort reform, which Edwards frames as “insurance company responsibility to victims.”

Edwards’ piety has a populist edge. He’s the only candidate who makes a stink about CEO compensation in general, not just about companies that cook their books. “If the boards and CEOs of our nation do not … take responsibility for excessive executive pay, they need to understand that Congress may have no choice but to act on these fronts,” he warns ominously. Lieberman says our culture has lost some its morals; Edwards says ordinary “hardworking” people are still behaving morally, but they’re getting ripped off by their bosses. “I spent most of my adult life standing up for ordinary people who played by the rules and got hurt by people at the top who didn’t,” says Edwards.

What’s missing from that description of Edwards’ life, of course, is the L word: lawyer. It’s hard to tug people’s heartstrings about right and wrong when they think you’re a shyster. So Edwards triangulates away from his profession. He brags about an amendment he authored that “says to lawyers, if you learn of wrongdoing at your corporation, you have a duty to report it up the chain of command and to the board if necessary. The [American Bar Association] doesn’t like this amendment.” Edwards also denounces drug companies that file “frivolous lawsuits to keep less expensive generic drugs off the market.” Edwards is the lawyer who will protect you from the other lawyers.

Don’t confuse him with those ACLU types or nitpicking defense attorneys who get criminals acquitted on technicalities. He’s the only Democrat who promises a crackdown on street thugs and parolees. And by the way, he adds, “The Ninth Circuit was wrong about the Pledge of Allegiance. This is one nation under God, and I want our schoolchildren to know it.” Just in case any of them was confusing him with Michael Dukakis.