Jewish World Review May 30, 2003 / 28 Iyar 5763
Dems grope for glimmer of hope
If you happen to know who is running for president on the Democratic side, count yourself among the minority who cares.
Two-thirds of the public, 66 percent, could not name any of the nine current Democratic presidential candidates in a May CBS/New York Times poll.
Such polls have a little bit of a trick element to them, like Jay Leno's goofy on-the-street interviews that seem to easily find Americans who think Abraham Lincoln invented the automobile.
Still, I wonder how many of those who could not name a presidential candidate could name the finalists on Fox TV's "American Idol"?
In fact, 64 percent of self-identified Democrats who responded to the poll failed to name even one of their party's current candidates. Among those who could name at least one, 9 percent of overall voters and 10 percent of Democrats named Joe Lieberman, who you may recall ran for vice president in 2000 with What's-His-Name.
I could list the other Democratic candidates, but, judging by the polls, you probably know them already or don't much care yet.
In fact, it is in that little word "yet" that Democratic candidates, pelted by President Bush's high post-Iraq approval ratings, find a glimmering little spark of hope.
After all, it is only May 2003. We still have a summer ahead of us. A lot can happen between now and next year's primaries. Except for us political junkies, most Americans avoid becoming fully engaged in presidential campaigns until at least after Labor Day.
Just think back a dozen years: At this point, a year and a half before the November 1992 election, we had a president named George H. W. Bush whose approval ratings were higher than 70 percent after a victorious war in Iraq. The Democrats looked a bit flummoxed by their own leadership vacuum. Their strongest possibilities like Al Gore, Bill Bradley and Mario Cuomo decided not to chance it, despite widespread pleading.
Oh, yes. There was that governor from Arkansas, wasn't there?
Bill Clinton was not known widely at the time, except for having talked too long at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.
But the nation's economy was in the dumps and the first President George Bush appeared in many minds to be too aloof from the issue until it was too late.
Fast forward to today. About 2.7 million jobs have been lost from private-sector payrolls since the current President Bush took office in January 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than half a million have been lost from February through April.
And that glimmer you see in Democratic candidates' eyes, whether you can name them or not, is a sense of what Yogi Berra might call deja vu all over again, a re-imagining of Clinton's 1992 upset with each of themselves as the new "Comeback Kid."
Of course, their dream is the younger Bush's nightmare. Urged onward by his chief political strategist Karl Rove, Bush the Younger hiked up his cowboy boots and pushed for the second round of tax cuts since he took office.
With that he seized ownership of the economy as an issue, for better or worse. If the economy improves, he can claim credit. If not, he can shift the blame.
He can blame Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans who held him to a "little bitty," in his words, $350 billion package of tax cuts, including $20 billion in aid to the states, instead of the full $726 billion in tax breaks that he originally wanted.
Meanwhile, the federal budget deficit that disappeared in the 1990s prosperity has returned. The government has borrowed $202 billion so far this fiscal year, the Congressional Budget Office reports. Interest on the national debt (which is expected to top $6 trillion next year) already approaches a billion dollars a day.
That seems to be just fine with Team Bush, since they don't like the size of government anyway. What better reason to shrink it, in their view, than to point out that it is costing too much?
Democrats, by contrast, dependably protect and promote the services that government provides. Polls show that when the issue is national security and the cost of government, Republicans win. When it is domestic security and "caring about ordinary people," Democrats win.
Can Bush be beaten? The numbers say yes, but Democrats can't afford to sit back and wait for more economic calamity to come crashing down around our ears. Most of the public is waiting to be wooed and, as my daddy used to advise, you can't woo someone with nothing.
Democrats can win when one rises above the herd with heart, courage and a brain.
First, they have to get our attention.
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