Monday, October 13, 2003


I went to the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Phoenix last Thursday with my wife and my daughter. Actually, the most striking moment of the entire debate for me was realizing that my daughter will vote in this election. She won't turn 18 until after the Arizona presidential preference election on Feb. 3, but she'll be able to vote in both the primary and general election in 2004. Anything any of the candidates said seemed pretty insignificant after that. Whoa.

The second most striking moment was during the "town hall" portion of the debate with the questions from supposedly ordinary undecided voters, when one said, "We all know that to be president you need intelligence and courage," at which I blurted out, "Not anymore."

Just remember--we Democrats aren't being negative. We're just reminding voters how Ronald Reagan framed the 1980 election: Are you better off today than four years ago? If so, vote for the incumbent. If not, vote him out. Foreign policy and defense were in that question in 1980, and they're in it again today. What--you think Reagan asked the wrong question?

Democratic (Yawn) Debate

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 12, 2003

As an uncommitted Democratic primary voter -- I supported Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who had quit three days earlier -- last Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate in Phoenix didn’t do what it was theoretically supposed to. It also solidified my belief that Democrats shouldn’t campaign as reporters and Republicans claim we should.

I can’t recall attending a political event as an uncommitted voter before. I watched the debate free to make an educated judgment, as many well-intentioned idealists say should happen. In some theoretically perfect universe other than ours, voters are supposed to read long (and inevitably boring) position papers and newspaper articles and watch debates like Thursday’s intently, withholding judgment until getting satisfactory answers on substance, policy, and character.

Bullflop. First, until some more candidates drop out of the race -- and the dynamics and calendar probably mean that nobody else must quit until after we start voting in Arizona -- a debate can’t distinguish among nine candidates (even once you realize Kucinich, Moseley Braun, and Sharpton aren’t in it to win, and that despite his greater ability to connect emotionally with voters, pressure will build on Edwards to turn his charm and political skill toward keeping his Senate seat). Dividing 90 minutes among nine candidates means there isn’t enough time for anybody to stand out, especially when the substantive disagreements are minor (and half the debate is vaporous questions from allegedly uncommitted voters).

This is not a bad thing. Until the nominee emerges in early March, the candidates must work on other aspects of their campaigns -- building their “back office” operations, creating effective volunteer organizations in the various primary states, making their Internet fundraising and campaigning effective -- than on having the best debating style and sound bites. The Democrats won’t be able to rely on weapon systems, but will have to fight this war with people, on the ground. That will be far more useful in November, 2004, particularly if after the nomination, a greater-than-usual percentage of these organizational assets unite in common cause against George W. Bush.

It also means that the Republicans can’t use their opposition efforts as effectively, because they can’t train their fire and spin on the presumptive nominee. The Democrats don’t have a clue yet who will be the nominee, so how could the Republicans? Effective negative advertising and spin needs to have a single target, not 9.

The other great “theme” of supposedly well-intentioned people -- continually expressed by people with absolutely zero interest in Democratic success -- is that the Democrats cannot succeed by just criticizing George Bush, but need to lay out a positive vision, alternative policies, and specifics. Also wrong.

First, the Democrats tried that in 2002. Consultants and commentators told candidates to “take the war off the table” and support the administration’s moves toward war in Iraq so that voters would focus instead on domestic issues where the parties disagreed, and where polls showed Democrats had an advantage. But that strategy failed; you can’t take that big an issue “off the table” and any time you spend explaining why you support the president can’t be spent attacking him. Sen. Mary Landrieu proved in Louisiana’s December, 2002 runoff election that if you’re the opposition party, you’re better off opposing.

But here’s the clincher. In California, the new Republican governor-elect spent his entire campaign attacking the unpopular incumbent and offering only the most general and contradictory platitudes, and certainly no specifics, about his policies. The 2004 campaign will be a similar referendum on Bush’s performance in office. The Democratic nominee should focus on the failures of the incumbent, just as Arnold Schwarzenegger did.

Arnold didn’t need no stinkin’ substance. Neither should the Democrats.

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