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Kerry and Getting Past the Threshhold

Yesterday, DR argued that John Kerry has emerged as the Democratic frontrunner and very plausible general election candidate because he has threshhold credibility with voters in three key areas: as commander-in-chief and defender of national security; as steward of the economy and custodian of the domestic agenda; and through his campaigning and ability to connect with voters.

But Kerry will need much more than threshhold credibility to beat George Bush. In this regard, Kerry's revival of warmed-over Gore-style populism is problematic. Kerry has been putting this populism front-and-center in his recent campaign speeches, including his victory speech Tuesday night in New Hampshire.

I have a message for the influence peddlers, for the polluters, the HMOs, the drug companies, big oil and all the special interests who now call the White House home: We're coming. You're going. And don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Now, there's a lot to be said for such a theme. As with Bill Clinton in 1992, it is probably an effective way to consolidate the support he needs to get the nomination. And it can and should be an important part of the case to be made against George Bush in the general election campaign. Polls consistently show that Bush and his administration are viewed as being on the side of the wealthy and big corporations, not the average American. It would be political malpractice on Kerry's part not to emphasize this.

But that emphasis shows more what you're against than where you want to take the country, especially with "the people vs. the powerful" rhetoric that he has been using. (Kerry would do well to borrow some of Edwards' more optimistic approach as well as Edwards' whole frame that Bush's tax and other policies are a radical shift toward rewarding wealth instead of work.) To succeed, Kerry needs to get beyond populist critique to a positive, compelling vision of where he want to take the country. Here are some ideas.

Start with the economy. Criticizing its shortcomings is fine and, even with the pickup in growth, there’s still likely to be plenty to find fault with in 2004. In all likelihood, the Bush administration will wind up presiding over a net loss of jobs–particularly manufacturing jobs--which is quite extraordinary by historical standards (not since the disastrous administration of Herbert Hoover, to be precise). But, compared with the situation in 1992, both the unemployment rate and the level of economic pessimism are likely to be lower than those which helped doom his father’s re-election chances.

Therefore, even more so than Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992, Kerry's campaign has to be about the future of the economy and the country in general–a future that Republican policies have seriously compromised. As pollster Stanley Greenberg argues in his new book, The Two Americas, the future that would resonate most with American voters is an opportunity society of the type envisioned by the Democrats of John F. Kennedy’s era. Such a society would give everyone access to the resources and education to get ahead and is radically counterposed to where Bush is taking the country.

Take the Bush tax cuts. The public has never been particularly enthusiastic about them, seeing them as only modestly helpful to the average person and the economy as a whole, if helpful at all. They are well aware most of the benefits flow to the well-off and outright rich. Evidence is strong that they would prefer seeing the money devoted to subsidizing the affluent used for public purposes in specific areas.

One area that immediately presents itself, especially given its clear connection to an opportunity society, is education. The Republicans’ program in this area is simple: high standards through the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, while presiding over a stagnant federal education budget and dramatic education cutbacks in fiscally-crunched states. That formula means states don’t have the money to help the many failing schools designated by NCLB, much less improve and modernize their school systems for the 21st century.

The public is well-aware of this problem. Provided Kerry maintains the NCLB's basic commitment to high standards and stringent accountability ("mend it, don't end it"), he will find a receptive audience for proposals to give schools the resources they need to both meet current shortfalls and modernize for the future. Modernization could include universal access to pre-school, keeping school buildings open all-day and year-round for educational enrichment and/or ensuring that every student can continue their education beyond high school. This, in turn, would mean substantial changes in the ways schools operate, recruit teachers and provide services. A modernization program on this scale will go far toward branding Kerry's campaign as a campaign for the future.

The same focus on the future should inform his programs in other areas. In health care, while he will have a fat target in the recently-passed Medicare prescription drugs bill, he should resist the temptation to focus on the notorious skimpiness of the drug benefit. The worst crime of the bill is it does nothing to rein in runaway drug costs (indeed, that’s the main reason the bill manages to spend a fair amount of money–$400 billion over ten years–yet achieve so little), whose escalating prices terrify the senior citizens who consume them. Similarly, the goal of extending coverage is a worthy one, but the typical voter already has health insurance and is most worried about the degrading quality and increasing costs (both premiums and out-of-pocket) of the policy they have. Modernizing the health care system in this country means, first and foremost, finding ways to bring and keep health care costs under control. That, in turn, would help lay the basis for a model of universal coverage that would be fiscally and politically sustainable, rather than simply adding another expensive entitlement to the current system.

Or take Social Security. The Republican plan to partially privatize the system by “carving out” a portion of the FICA tax to be put into individual investment accounts is a bad one and support for it is quite soft, once the inevitable reduction in guaranteed benefits is brought to voters’ attention. But a defense of the Social Security system, while reasonable in and of itself, does nothing to modernize a pension system that leaves some workers without retirement accounts at all and others with multiple and underfunded accounts.

The most straightforward way to do this is to set up a universal pension system that would provide every worker with a fully portable retirement account. Under such a system, all the various IRA and related accounts would be rolled into one tax-favored account and workers could direct cash from any and all their 401(k) accounts into this universal account, which would remain with them as they moved from job to job. As former Clinton economic advisor Gene Sperling advocates, these accounts could be further supported by providing up to $1,000 a year in matching contributions for savings deducted from paychecks–a one-to-one match for middle-income workers and a two-to-one match for lower-income workers.

Another issue Kerry should focus on is the environment and the need to safeguard it for future generations. This is an issue with strong appeal to key Democratic-leaning groups like professionals and the young. But it’s also an issue that gets a lot of moderate suburban swing voters hot under the collar. Polling consistently shows that voters think Bush has been doing a terrible job on the environment, trust the Democrats on the issue by wide margins and vote heavily Democratic if it’s an important voting issue to them. The Gore campaign de-emphasized the issue in 2000, on the grounds that it wasn’t a salient issue to enough voters. Kerry shouldn’t make the same mistake. The more he talks about it, the more salient the issue will become; the more salient it becomes, the better off his campaign will be.

Across all these issues, Kerry should highlight how his program for America’s future connects to a vision of an opportunity society where every American is provided with the tools they need to succeed, from adequate education to a reasonable level of health security to an effective way to save for their retirement. Opportunity for all Americans, not just the few with the most money and connections to Washington, is a fundamental American value and that value should lie at the heart of Kerry's campaign.

DR can't promise this approach will beat George Bush. But it's got more potential to do so than "the people vs. the powerful". Or (shudder) "the real deal".

Comments

As highlighted in tonight's debate, Kerry's legislative legacy is that of a do-nothing opportunist. And that is no kind of vita with which to lead a positive forward looking campaign.

However good he may sound -- and it is not likely that he will sound good -- Kerry's decade long failure to provide bold leadership in the Senate will stand in conspicuous contrast to the programs he now promises to deliver.

For the Democrats to offer a compelling, visionary, and plausible alternative, they must select a candidate with the charisma to sell it to the American Electorate. It will help, greatly, if the candidate has a record of positive achievement in making government work for the common good. Barring this, the candidate at least should not have a long record of legislative mediocrity.

Ruy, you keep urging every Democrat to make education the signature issue and cautioning against "people vs. powerful" appeals.

But I ask you: What is the value of education when even the good jobs are being hemorrhaged in an orgy of outsourcing? In that context, calling corporations engaging in such behavior "Benedict Arnolds" as Kerry (I think it was he) said in tonight's debate is dead on. Of course, this will have to be backed by more substantive proposals for it to mean anything but there's nothing wrong with that emotion.

I'll tell you this much: New Democrat-like calls for retraining as the panacea (the stock answer of the Clinton era) ain't going to cut it anymore - as John Edwards showed tonight. Until there's an answer to "for what jobs are we being retrained" that's not your silver bullet.

Hell, I'm a fifty-year old laid off programmer having a hard time finding a job. I'm damned glad my son DOESN'T seem inclined to follow my profession. If he were so inclined, I'd have to discourage him. And who would have expected
that five years ago?

Ok, this is a general comment that applies to this entry, as well as Ruy's general outlook.

I truly appreciate Ruy's insights. I think they are a priceless asset for the Democratic party. Ruy's snapshots of America's state of mind, and his analysis of it are a very powerful tool in the Democrats' toolbox (or they should be if they are not).

But while I think a leader should follow public opinion most of the time, she should as well do what is right, and maybe bold, sometimes.

One could argue that Dean's politics failed. And, in some way, they clearly did. Dean very often went exactly right into the blowing wind. The tax issue is one example. I think that issue cost him a good chunk of Iowa's electorate.

But he also went right against public opinion in the case of Irak, and in the case of a more activist stand towards Bush. And there he led. And he convinced his audience. To the benefit of the party, I would argue. So much so that Kerry, Edwards, and Clark have all adopted a great chunk of Dean's positions.

Again, I do appreciate Ruy's insights. I read him religiously. But I'm not so sure about the wisdom of making policy solely according to the prevailing winds of public opinion.

Fair trade, fair trade, fair trade. This is a winning issue. Dean's answer on trade was spot on tonight. I don't know where the DLC and like-minded folks got the idea that free trade is a winning issue - it alienates many of the very voters someone like Lieberman (rightly) tries to attrack through a focus on values.

I'm not a Dean supporter, but I have to say he impressed me tonight. If nothing else, he needs to stick around in the campaign and beyond. He is a wonderful voice for Demcorats, if also he carries baggage as a candidate that is potentially fatal, at least in 2004 (most specifically, his tax policy).

BTW, Wesley Clark. He had a very strong performance. His church/state answer was pitch perfect. He's regained my support. He needs to keep it up. If he can keep improving, he could be a very formidable candidate.

Ben P

If Kerry gets the nod, his hope for winning in November seems to rest on being what Saul Bellow called a "contrast gainer".

On his own merits, he doesn't look that hot, but standing next to Bush, he looks pretty good.

Is there more to it than that?

Re: Contrast Gainer.

That might be true if neither of the candidates were incumbents. I think incumbency tends to trump contrast gains (at least minor ones).

Hi everyone, I am so sad right now. I think the Democrats are once again preparing for ritual suicide. I guess you could call it hari-Kerry. We are conning ourselves into thinking that a candidate that we only moderately support will get the support of people who only minimally support Democrats.
In spite of the fact that Northerners have lost six out of seven races we are gong to nominate a Northerner. In spite of the fact that most Americans vote for impressions and images rather than issues we are scrambling around trying to identify an issue to run on. In spite of the fact that Bush will spend 200 million dollars scaring the crap out of the electorate and selling himself as the heroic protector we are nominating a candidate who is unwilling to provide leadership on the war. We are going to lose. And it's our own fault because we had a candidate who could have won but we are in the process of rejecting him.
I've been a Democrat for a long time. I stuffed envelopes for LBJ when I was a little girl and I wore a McCarthy button to high school. I had a McGovern bumper sticker on my first car. I've been to many caucuses and worked for too many losing campaigns. I am so sick of Democrats engaging in self-marginalizing behavior. This race is one of the most important in American history. We can't win if we don't appeal to the middle and we can't appeal to the middle by watering down our values. People want leadership and we can't provide it if our candidate is the kind of person who checks the opinion polls to find out what his opinions are.
We need someone who could speak the truth to counter Bush's lies. Wes Clark got a standing ovation from an audience of VFW's by stating simply that Bush lied about the WMD's and was scapegoating the CIA. Kerry and Edwards won't talk about the war. Dean does but he is too abrasive. We needed someone who could show people that the values of patriotism and family and duty are Democratic values. Clark was succeeding in bring people to the party who normally looked for those values elsewhere. The fact that he was a former Independent should have made Democrats welcome him rather than regarding him with suspicion. We aren't going to win elections if we don't want people to join us. And anyway I'd rather give the leadership of the party to a new Democrat than to an old one who votes like a Republican on issues of national ind international importance. Clark's stated positions on all other issues were acceptably liberal. Granted he doesn't have a conventional track record but the things he says are unquestionably better that the things Bush will do when he wins this fall.
And he's from the South. This is important. Southern Democrats have won 5 of seven races.
I'll do the right thing and vote for Kerry since the alternative Bush. But I am deeply sorry and deeply saddened by our failure. We have a candidate that could have won with the the general election but he won't get the chance because he isn't the top choice of the tiny minority that goes to Democratic caucuses.

Ruy, I think the underlying message of your piece is right on -- we need to propose a positive program that will move the country forward, rather than just pointing out how bad the incumbent is. I would, however, like to qualify it with two points. First, every campaign has to be a balance between critcizing what the other guy is doing (or will do) and promoting what we will do. Without each of those, we are missing a key element. As one person put it, we have to draw a contrast between us and them. This is particularly true when we are trying to unseat an incumbent.

Second, I think you are missing something in your criticism of what you call "populism." You seem to define it as only the "what's wrong with the other guy" side of the equation. I think it is, and has to be, both the positive and negitive side of the equation. Populism, in my mind, is a system of positive programs that will make the country a better place for average people -- such as the ones you go on to propose in the rest of your piece.

But more importantly, I believe we need to articulate an overall philosophy that ties together and provides the reason for our concrete proposals. I believe that populism is a huge part of that philosophy, especially in current times. Until we articulate that philosophy and make it the conventional wisdom, we will have to rely on individual brilliant politicians to win races for us. And that is not a formula for a majority, no matter how people feel about the more concrete issues.

Finally, we need to be able to summarize our philosophy in bumper sticker size phrases. Remember how powerfully "Get government off the backs of the people" summed up Reagan-style conservatism? Then phrases such as "There are two Americas -- and it doesn't have to be that way." or "The people versus the powerful" are a fine way to do it. In fact, it is a shame Al Gore wasted that slogan. I don't think his problem was in making that statement, it was in never explaining what he meant by it, or tying it together with his more concrete proposals.

Ruy's critique on the limits of a populist appeal is certainly right in that any candidate has an obligation to lay out an affirmative vision. What are you for, not just, what are you against. However, and IMO this is a huge however, Ruy's critique seems to miss two critical facts.

First, in case you haven't looked at a calendar lately, it is not 1992, nor is it 2000. It is 2004, and the context in which the populist appeal is being made is entirely different. In 1992, Dems had held Congress for nearly 50 years. Trying to make a populist appeal when your own party has been in the majority for two generations has real limitations. In 2000, Gore, a child of priveledge, was the sitting Vice-President and the Dems had held the White House for eight years. Now, the context is entirely different. Reps run the entire show and they have used it to gut worker rights, repeal environmental protections, grant corporate contracts to their buddies, and hand out trillions in tax breaks to corporations and the rich. A blind man can see that the context is entirely different, and that the appeals are more likely to resonate in the current context.

The second obvious factor left out of Ruy's analysis is that how well the populist message will resonate is effected significantly by who is giving the message. If patrician Kerry, with twenty years of service in the millionaires club Senate and an heiress wife, is making the people vs. the powerful message it is going to sound inauthentic, just like it did when Gore tried to make the appeal in 2000 (actually, Gore's populism, late though it was and handicapped by the messenger, helped him overcome a ten point Bush lead in the last two weeks).

On the other hand, if Edwards, the son of a millworker, first generation college grad, fighter for the little people against the insurance companies, is making the appeal, it is much more likely to resonate with the working class swing voters the Dems need. This is the single biggest reason that Edwards would make a far better nominee than Kerry.

Wake-up folks before we nominate a weak candidate. As most of you know, I was a staunch Dean supporter because I loved his populist message. The message didn't fail. The messenger's credibility was successfully attacked by a corporate media onslaught. I urge all of you who are still supporting Dean and those who have been supporting Clark to get on board the Edwards bandwagon. I hate to say it, but Kerry is going to be tarred as a "wishy-washy, inauthentic, liberal-elitist, tax-and-spend, left-of-Kennedy" Democrat. Kerry is, fairly or unfairly, a truly vulnerable choice, and Edwards is the only viable alternative.

I don't think that the fact that a candidate is wealthy takes away from his ability to articulate and run on a populist theme. The most successful populist in American history was Franklin Roosevelt. I think that people like it when a rich guy wants to take their side.

And I think this would be partularly true in a Kerry Bush campaign. Kerry can use his war record to prove his bona fides as a regular guy. And Bush will get nowhere whining about how someone else is a rich guy.

I don't see Ruy's point as "being a slave to a poll" really. It's more a question of focus and message. Which areas are the best to focus on vis-a-vis Bush? And given that, how can candidates propose policies, positive steps, that show the weakness of the Bush administration. This way, you show the country WHY you would be better. People are attracted to optimism, that was Reagan's big appeal. So if you can take an issue the Bush has done poorly at, one that folks think is "just too big", and propose a program that looks promising, Bush has no answer. Otherwise, the swing voter will think, "sure, Bush is bad, but why will you be better?" I think Edwards understands this the best of any of the candidates.

This is one problem the Democrats have in the national security arena. The problem of Islamic fundamentalist terror is hard, very hard. Bush has done a poor job of dealing with it, but he's done something. So what are the Dems gonna do that's better? It isn't enough to simply criticize Bush, you gotta say what you're gonna do that's better.

For example, remember the story about reporters who bought one-way tickets and boarded airplanes with weapons? Well, why doesn't a candidate propose to institute periodic test-runs exactly like this, and keep doing it until we get airport security RIGHT.

Or, the idea of a review of intel-gathering process in the US is wonderful. Or the 12-division army. This can all be paid for by shifting the Pentagon budget around, and cutting back on the latest "star wars" deployment and so on.

Paul: I don't entirely disagree with you. As I said in my earlier post, Gore closed a ten point gap in two to three weeks by making a populist appeal. If Kerry gets the nomination, I hope he keeps it up. My point was that the message is most effective when content and messenger are in sync. I also agree that Kerry's Vet status helps give him some protection from the rich-elitist-liberal tag, but I still think he is highly vulnerable.

Don't forget that Rove has $200 million to try to affix any lies or distortions of his choosing to the Dem nominee. We need to anticipate their line of attack and nominate our least vulnerable candidate.

I do want to applaud Ruy on his suggestion that the Dems start talking about opportunity. I think it is the perfect compliment to a strong critique of special-interest power. Genuine equality of opportunity gets to Dem values of fairness, diversity, and equality, without sounding like an expensive hand-out. Besides which, it sounds very patriotic and puts us in the position of supporting hard-work a virtue that most Americans can agree on.

I always thought "people vs. the powerful" was a horrible theme. It meant a battle where one side wins and the other loses.

Americans don't want to destroy the powerful. We just want them to play by the same rules.

OTOH, "people vs. George W. Bush" might work.

I agree with you, Ruy, that "opportunity" is the magic word. Americans don't want income redistribution, but they do want everyone to get a fair shot.

The welfare society does not provide the incentive for people to reach their potential; the individualist society doesn't provide the means for people to reach their potential; an opportunity society should provide both the incentive and the means for human fulfillment. That's what our public policy should aim for.

I think a "populist" appeal is fine, but it has to resonate with the dominant national mood. And my impression is that the current national mood is characterized not so much by a sense of deprivation, exclusion or class resentment - but rather, by a sense of anxiety. Overall, people are getting by at the moment. But they're worried about employment, about health care, about debt, and about the future facing their children.

So, the domestic policy message needs to be about creating security in the present, and opportunity for the future. A little bit of "freedom from want," but mostly "freedom from fear."

Funny how being unemployed changes your perspective. When I had a job, the war and the Bush premption doctrine were my most important issues.

Now, I'm awfully interested in the hemorrhaging of jobs. I just spoke this morning with my 80-year old neighbor as I was shoveling snow. We've never talked politics before, in ten years of knowing each other. I mentioned I was now unemployed. After commiserating with me, he said first, "We've got to get rid of that idiot in the White House." Then, "All we know how to make here anymore is babies." Told me about his grandson, about to graduate college, no jobs there for him. What's a good field to enter these days? There don't appear to be any.

Sure, put down "people vs. powerful" if you want. But the answer to this one is NOT "education". This development is new. It wasn't on the radar this past summer. It is now. It explains the eclipse of Dean. It has to be dealt with if a Democrat is to win.

I really like your last line: "DR can't promise this approach will beat George Bush. But it's got more potential to do so than 'the people vs. the powerful'. Or (shudder) 'the real deal'."

Of course, you can't, and here's my opinion as to why you can't.

Basically, you propose that Sen. Kerry ignore the populist uproar by rank-and-file Democrats about their leaders' inability to stand up and go toe-to-toe with George W. Bush. Rather, you urge the good senator from Massachusetts to serve Democrats another heaping helping of the same warmed-over, vaguely defined pablum that has resulted left increasing numbers of our party's base numbed up, dumbed down, and bummed out.

Small wonder that questions about our party's ability to turn out that base persist, when what you're offering people is a sorry product that is overbaked, all meringue, and no filling.

I have a different suggestion for esptablishment Democrats like Sen. Kerry. How about showing Americans a little of the chutzpah you displayed in opposing the Vietnam War? Try letting the other shoe drop.

Because George Bush lied, our soldiers died on behalf of a 21st century, neo-colonial corporate venture to sieze the energy resources of another country. I really don't care anymore if Sen. Kerry voted in favor of authorizing the president to pursue his vainglorious dreams of conquest on October 11, 2002.

That was then, and this is now.

The question I and lots of other Democrats have is whether Sen. Kerry has the intestinal fortitude to call out the president for what he really is -- a serial liar who fronts for a gang of corporate robber barons, the likes of which this country hasn't seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. We can do better, and we deserve better.

This is the core message that needs to be delivered, forcefully, bluntly, simply, and repeatedly. To be sure, it's a negative message -- but it's also the truth. And there are a lot of people who are ready to hear that truth, and to act accordingly once that truth is spoken.

So please, spare us the cotton candy talk about so-called electability factors and who appears to be more presidential, and who can best mouth glittering generalities that are pleasing to the ears but devoid of substance.

If you persist on keeping this discussion of our political future on that superficial level, with an insistence that candidates meet your self-serving artificial thresholds of viability that were already predetermined with your favored candidate in mind, you run the risk of alienating enough of our party's core base so that it sits this one out. Simply put, our country cannot afford that.

Don't keep assuming that our base will turn out for your candidate because they will have nowhere else to go. They don't have to go anywhere -- they can just stay home. A case in point:

Here in Hawaii, GOP Gov. Linda Lingle won election in 2002 over Democrat Mazie Hirono by almost 20,000 votes in a predominantly Democratic state. She triumphed even though she received over 2,000 votes less than she did in 1998, when she lost a close race to the then-Democratic incumbent, Ben Cayetano. How did that happen?

For starters, Mazie Hirono ran exactly the type of campaign you propose for Sen. Kerry:

- Run to the middle to seek out that illusive 5% demographic which supposedly represents independent voters.

- Keep free of any controversy by alluding to undefined "Democratic values" while avoiding specifics, i.e., mentioning a woman's right to reporductive choice.

- Embrace the concept of "reform" without making any distinct promises.

- Emphasize a pro-business stance, and avoid any perception as coddling labor or working people, etc.

- Hire "highly recommended and experienced" people to manage your campaign, i.e., favored political insiders.

- Cut off almost all access to the candidate by rebuffing the assistance offered by representatives of traditional core Democratic constituencies, thereby demonstrating that your candidate isn't in the thralls of "special interests." It won't hurt. they'll understand. After all, who are they going to vote for -- the Republicans? HA, HA, HA, HA ...

Voila! The subsequent Democratic turnout for the 2002 Hawaii gubernatorial election dropped off by almost 12%, thereby giving Hawaii residents the opportunity to now address Ms. Lingle as "Governor Lingle" for the next four years.

Need a more recent example? Take San Francisco, arguably one of the most Democratic municipalities in the country.

There, in the recently concluded 2003 mayoral election, the winning Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom -- who garnered the endorsements of almost all of California's Democratic Party establishment -- barely squeaked by Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez with only 52% of the vote. One could plausibly argue that while Newsom won because San Francisco's 20% GOP minority voted for him, he also lost the majority of Democratic votes to Gonzalez because he failed to address the concerns of the party base.

So in conclusion ("FINALLY!" the reader sighs, "what a windbag ..."):

If the Democratic establishment wishes to win this all-important election, I would respectfully suggest that our party's so-called (and all too often self-annointed) "movers and shakers" embrace the lessons of the power of positive populism offered by Howard Dean's meteoric rise last year, and avoid any gloating over the apparent demise of his campaign's prosects.

Remember, Dean's supporters don't have to go anywhere. They can just stay home, like they've done countless times before, and which they'll do again if they perceive any insincerity toward the party base's concerns during Sen. Kerry's campaign for the White House.

I think NV's post below is great.

I don't think attacking anyone as a "liberal" will work the way it used to, unless maybe that candidate is Dennis Kucinich. Old votes from a decade ago won't damage Kerry much, because this rarely works. It seems like it would work, but it doesn't. Note that old votes weren't used against Gore, Dole, or Bush. It's the current proposals of the candidate that are the most salient, as long as they're not too far removed from the candidate's history. It will be another "character" race.

Kerry's not as weak as people think, and with the selection of the right themes he'll be perfectly adequate.

I believe now that the war itself is less salient (but not security), and with a possible Iraq pullout or Osama capture, and with the continuing jobs crisis, Edwards may indeed be more electable than Kerry thanks to his remarkable personality, and I still put Clark ahead. But if Kerry continues like he has in the last month, he'll be good enough.

Well said, Donald, even if it was at length. I agree. This isn't the year for "sunshine in America". The world has changed. We are in danger of losing, indeed, have already lost our role as the nation most admired by others. We are vilified for our foreign policy as bullies and self serving hypocrites, and the quality of life for most of our citizens has fallen below that of many Europeans on many indicators. There is a rumbling discontent abroad in the land that happy talk won't satisfy. Most of us are anxious, exhausted, overwhelmed and worried. I fear the "bubble of American supremacy", to quote George Soros, may already have burst and we just don't know it yet.

I think Mara and Donald have a view about political strategy that warms the hearts of about 5-10% of Democrats nationwide. You're making the mistake of believing that Dean's pre-January numbers were firm. They never are that far from election day. Dean lost every demographic. It just wasn't there, and you talk as if he lost by 1%.

Gavin Newsom won close because he was associated with Willie Brown. Special circumstances. I'll bet you big money that if he''s at all successful, it won't be close in 4 years. You're generalizing from a very small set of political examples, and you're making assumptions about the wide appeal of tonalities and policy positions that has *never* been proven out before. Such as speaking "the truth" in political campaigns. (If only it were true....sigh) Like the grassroots or new voters fantasies. The world will not stop rotating if Howard Dean doesn't get a prime time speaking slot at the convention.

Let me add that many aspects of US life are declining, I certainly don't dispute Mara's point - but coginitive dissonace prevents a gloomy gus from getting elected President. It's an office, a symbol, that many voters invest both hope and their own narcissism in. They don't want to be afraid. Sour medicine doesn't go down.

BrilliantIdiot:

yes, Dean lost. But I'm not sure that his loss can be blamed solely on his political positions. As a matter of fact, the three "surviving" candidates have all adopted big chunks of Dean's credo (opposition to the war for all of them, Edwards' "two Americas", Kerry's "Bring it on", Edwards' "I'm ready for a fight", criticism of NCLB, etc.).

Dean LED America (well, Democratic America) to those positions. They were NOT widely supported by the public back them (with the possible exception of NCLB, but I'm not sure how many people were aware of NCLB, and its effects back then).

Dean's tax position might be a different matter. I'm not sure he was wrong on it, but that one seems like a dangerous issue to lead on. It certainly seems to have cost him.

"Two Americas" and "fighting" and "special interests" (which you didn't mention) are very old, have been used in many campaigns. Two Americas is currently a book by Stanley Greenberg, the pollster, if I'm not mistaken.

It's would be no insult to Dean to say that he's stolen Jerry Brown's message. Or parts of Nader's message. But it's all the same - it's not stealing.

It's like a chord progression in music. Many, many songs have identical chord progressions, but the melodies can be very different.

Sure, Dean got it from somebody else. Who cares? I think the point is that the themes that Dean used were "stolen" (as they should) once Dean convinced people that these were real, important issues.

In politics, that happens all the time, though. I never would assert that Dean's candidacy was without value, or that he didn't have excellent communications skills.

His skills with language are great. His strategic skills re: message, positions (taxes) and campaign planning are not so good. I think deep down believes that the unvarnished truth can win, and he spoke the truth. If he had pulled it off, it would have been a first (in a non majority liberal population)

But his way of expressing the truth was dark and edgy, IMO (hey - the truth ain't pretty), and this played into the larger constellation of personality issues people called "anger."

Some thoughts about message:

People vs. the powerful is not the right tone. It can be too easily dismissed by Republicans as "class envy" or "class hatred." Instead, I would suggest that we go more along the lines of Dean's, "Common Sense for America." If you haven't read it go to the Dean web site and do so immediately. It is a remarkable piece of writing. It talks about the restoration and fulfillment of the American democracy. Government of, by, and for the people rather than "us vs. them." It made me feel patriotic for the first time in nearly thirty years.

In general, we should talk about living up to the founding ideals of this country, and talk about the long fight for blacks and women to have a voice. Now, we must take action again to fulfill our true democratic values. This country is supposed to be a representative democracy where everyone has an equal voice. But is your voice equal to Ken Lay's and the Republican Pioneers. We should be telling people to "follow the money," and talk about the bundled contributions that the "fat cats" are using to buy our government right out from under us.

I have tried out these themes on a whole host of people and have received an incredible response. Yesterday, I stopped at a coffee shop and ended up talking to two older working class guys and a fifty-year-old ex-Marine. They were bitching about government and taxes when I entered the conversation, after forty-five minutes, I had these guys totally up-in-arms about "fat cat Republicans" buying the governemnt and had all three promise to vote Democratic in November. This message flat out resonates with working class people.

These people are pissed, they know they are getting screwed; they just aren't shure who it is that it is doing it to them. The Repubs repeatedly blame the poor, minorities, immigrants, and taxes for the economic distress these families are experiencing. We have to say "no." The reason you are getting screwed is that the corporations are taking our jobs oversees, and using their domination of the political process to use the government to serve their own needs rather than the needs of the people. It is our government, it belongs to us, and we have to fight to take it back.

Dean got hammered for being "angry." Yesterday, Gillespie, who is National Chairman of the GOP, started calling Kerry angry. This is just how the attacks started on Dean last summer. Gillespie called Dean "angry." The right wing pundits picked up the charge. Then pretty soon it found its way into the mainstream media. Dems need to be aware of this attack.

I believe the solution isn't to back off on the rhetoric but to reframe our criticisms. The Dems should be saying "this campaign is not about anger at Bush, this campaign is about accountability, about the President and the Congress being held resposible for the actions they have taken in the name of the American people." Using the terms accountability and responsibility frames the issues in a way that points out how radical and out of control the Repubs have been on foriegn policy, fiscal policy, civil liberties, etc. It makes Bush a naughty, irresponsible, Frat Boy. If we let the Repubs frame the issue, as happened with Dean, we become out-of-control and irresponsible. The themes of "accountability and responsibility" should be repeated again and again.

I firmly believe that a positive, populist message framed in the right manner can be incredibly effective. Especially if it is delivered by the right messenger. Go Edwards.

Unless Kerry is being advised by complete morons, he won't use "the real deal" as any sort of campaign slogan against Bush. It's designed to deal with Dean, as in, all this stuff about the power of the web and Dean's legions of followers is fake, but I'm "the real deal." Not a bad approach in this context, and it should be retired once it ceases to be useful.

RE: Brilliant Idiot -- "I think Mara and Donald have a view about political strategy that warms the hearts of about 5-10% of Democrats nationwide. You're making the mistake of believing that Dean's pre-January numbers were firm. They never are that far from election day. Dean lost every demographic. It just wasn't there, and you talk as if he lost by 1%."

But you're talking as though Howard Dean only got 5-10% of the vote, and finished in 7th place. Frankly, I don't believe I'm mistaken, and I'm going to stand my ground on this one.

What I was addressing in my previous post was the folly of blindly following unamended and therefore increasingly obsolete campaign strategies that result in the gradual erosion of successive layers of our overall Democratic base.

You make it sound so easy to write off this particular consituency or that one, as though those 5-10% of Democrats who you say would listen to me (I wish!) were a disposable commodity. Further, I'm distressed by this desire to marginalize various consituencies, as though they don't really factor into the overall equation. That's shortsighted and foolish, especially when one considers what happened in 2000.

The two races I used as examples should not be casually dismissed as some sort of flukes, but instead viewed within the context of a clearly emerging and troubling recent pattern, where we lose races that were otherwise eminently winnable. You want other examples, then look to the 2002 U.S. Senate race in Missouri between Jean Carnahan and Jim Talent, and the 2002 California gubernatorial race between Gray Davis and Bill Simon, for starters.

The former race, we lost because of the failure of Ms. Carnahan to articulate a political agenda that the base could wholeheartedly support, which she further alienated by voting in favor of the Iraqi war resolution.

As for that ultimate and consummate "centrist," Gray Davis, he arrogantly blew off so many Democratic consituencies in California during his first term in office that he barely slipped by a certifiable nutcase like Simon. That vulnerability did not go unnoticed by the GOP, hence the subsequent recall election only 11 months into his second term. By that time, Davis had alienated enough Democrats that 25% of them voted in favor of the recall.

In a close presidential race, such as the one that occurred in 2000, your strategy would lead to almost certain defeat. Remember -- even our defeats in the 2002 Senate races were by pretty slim margins. Securing that 5-10% of our Democratic party base vote, and doing so within our overall strategy of broadening our base, which you so blithely dismiss as irrelevant, could very well make the difference between winning and losing.

As a previous poster noted, this "is not 1992, nor is it 2000." And unfortunately, we don't have a candidate in the current field as politically gifted as Bill Clinton, who could triangulate issues and consituencies in a way that appeared inclusive.

What this party needs to do is to first firmly secure its own base of support, before you even THINK about reaching out to that nebulous voter demographic we call "the center." How can those particular voters -- or for that matter, any serious voter -- have any real confidence in a given Democratic candidate's campaign platform, if those positions aren't first firmly rooted in our base's core "Democratic values"? People don't really know where you're coming from.

In other words, it's hard to stand for something when your feet are planted firmly in mid-air with your finger to the wind.

Sen. Kerry voted in favor of the Iraqi war resolution, despite speaking repeatedly and very publicly against it prior to that vote. While I disagree with his action, perhaps I could have understood it in a broader context if he didn't subsequently flip-flop with his excuses. "I trusted this president, and he let me down." Please ... if millions of Americans outside the Beltway could figure out this president wasn't trustworthy, why couldn't he? Sorry to say it, but smacked of a craven political calculation his part. He was damn lucky it didn't prove fatal ... yet!

Then Sen. Kerry started voicing his regrets about that vote this summer. I thought he struck a good chord this fall when he bluntly admitted to "Rolling Stone" magazine that he didn't think Bush "would f**k up" so badly. Public mea culpas over mistakes in personal judgment are always worthy, especially from politicians. Having worked for Democratic politicians for 14 years -- including a congressman -- I can assure you that it takes a lot of personal ego to even consider putting yourself out there before the electorate and risk rejection, and the ability to admit mistakes doesn't come naturally to the breed.

Then, not one month later, when Saddam was pulled up from his spider hole, Kerry reversed himself again and publicly expressed his pleasure in having voted in favor of the war resolution.

"Say what, Senator?"

Today, Gen. Clark brought up Kerry's 1992 remarks (or was it '95? Sorry if I got the date wrong ...) about affirmative action programs being "divisive," in which he seemed all too ready to toss them aside in the face of vociferous GOP criticism of those programs.

I realize that it is probably uncomfortable for you to have me bring up such inconsistencies in Sen. Kerry's shifting positions, and I apologize for doing so. I believe that people have the right to change their minds about where they stand on issues, but these inconsistencies need to be addressed and minimized, firmly and decisively, if he hopes to win in November. Not just to me, although I will gladly vote for him over the present White House squatter in a heartbeat, but to those people who would like to believe him, but who look at his record and see something else -- a tendency to avoid controversy, even if his original stance is the right one.

It's always easy for a politician to say or do what's currently popular. Conversely, it is not always easy, and not often popular, for a politician to do what is ultimately right. While I might agree with you that Howard Dean all too often said things that were impolitic, his willingness to stand his ground for what he believed was certainly refreshing in an cynical age where the temptation of short-term political expediency all too often trumps the wisdom of long-term policy development.

If it wasn't for Howard Dean instilling a spine in the current Democratic frontrunner, John Kerry would be sounding like Joe Lieberman -- Bush-lite on the war in Iraq, the economy, etc. If for nothing else, Dean will deserve Kerry's thanks and gratitude for toughening him up for what will be one of the ugliest and most divisive presidential races in American history.

To put it bluntly, I look at Sen. John Kerry and see someone who lacks the courage of his own oft-expressed Democratic convictions and values. And I'm not the only one who thinks that way right now. That needs to change if Kerry is to prevail.

Can he? I certainly hope so. I had the same initial opinion of Bill Clinton in 1992, only to admit a few years later that I had underestimated the man. nothing would please me more than to say the same thing to you about John Kerry in 2006, should he sustain his momentum and become our nominee.

Good night, and take care. Aloha.

I notice that in all your fevent rallying for Kerry, you fail to mention that republican PAC's and the RNC outspent nearly all the Dems in IA & NH, all going to attack ads against Dean. Hmm, makes you wonder who they want to go against? Dean is the only candidate that really get's under Rove's skin, Kerry would be a pushover.

I'm still mystified why Kerry did so well in 5 of 7 states. Since turned his campaign around last month, I feel the press has given him a free pass on issues and positions. They seem to favor "the professionals" over "the amatuers." And give the latter more scrutiny than is merited. I mean if the professionals were looking out for our interests, why didn't they vigourously ask the Bush Adm. tough questions on why we should invade Iraq? Why didn't they take the testimony of Generals Clark, Shalikashvili, and Hoar in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee to show they are huge legitimate questions about this propsed invasion. Where were they when Sen. Byrd made his famous speaches in the Senate chamber? You know if Kerry or Edwards win the nomination Bush and the RNC will hammer the point relentlessly that they voted with me on the issue we disagree. So how will the so-called perform then.

Kerry will have to earn his stripes. His record need to examined. I still feel Clark is the best candidate, but he needs to show progress in the next couple of weeks in order to be a player on Super Tuesday and beyond. I predict the campaign will get tougher with other candidates going after Kerry and Edwards. If they don't do it now, it will never happen for the likes of Clark or Dean.

This post helps me put a finger on what I like most about Howard Dean and John Edwards: they have shown the ability to take issues out of obscurity and make them salient-- i.e., the vote on the Iraq war and the divide between "work" and "wealth" in the United States.

Kerry has shown an ability to take issues that other candidates are talking about and say all the right things about them (some might call this plagiarism). But it's less clear that he can offer his own set of appealing issues that will make voters like him. Are there any issues that people are talking about in 2004 that we wouldn't be talking about if it weren't for John Kerry? George W. Bush put "compassionate conservatism" on the political agenda (leaving aside the fact that this has proven utterly bankrupt in practice, I think most Americans-- whether Democrats or Republicans-- at least found that batch of policies labeled as "compassionate conservatism" appealing in the abstract); what will John Kerry contribute? The premise of a candidate who looks "electable" during the primary season will wear thin over the following six or seven months if voters don't have any idea what he'll do for them once he's in office.

(The worst case scenario that pops into my head is 1996 Clinton vs. Dole, right down to the Senate war hero and the questionable-military-service-record incumbent.)