You Remember The Democrats, Don't You?

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On the evening Baghdad fell, the nine democrats who would have us believe they are running for President emerged from their undisclosed locations and arrayed themselves in Washington before the Children's Defense Fund, a liberal interest group, and answered questions from a panel of journalists. Such events--"cattle shows" is the term of art — are common in the early stages of presidential campaigns. Inevitably, they are exercises in diminution. The serious candidates are forced to share the stage with the likes of Al Sharpton, and then further insulted when Sharpton gets the best applause and biggest laughs from the crowd. (One waits for the moment when one of the other candidates — someone, please!--states the obvious: that Sharpton is not a "civil rights leader" but an offensive racial show-off who has no place on the stage.)

And then there is the damage the candidates inflict upon themselves by fawning over the interest group sponsoring the event. The smartest thing I ever heard anyone say at one of these travesties was William Bennett's instruction to the audience at the Christian Coalition cattle show in 1995. Bennett told the faithful that "if these candidates don't tell you something that makes you feel uncomfortable or forces you to think, if they demand nothing from you, then you should give them nothing."

Every one of the Republicans failed Bennett's test that day, so it isn't only Democrats who are spineless wimps when it comes to these nonevents. Furthermore, this is not the worst bunch of Dems I've ever seen. They are not dwarfs (well, some of them aren't). But they are not quite giants either. Take the case of Senator Joe Lieberman, the only candidate who passed the Bennett test at the Children's Defense Fund. He celebrated the American victory in Iraq, a war he has favored from the start, and he celebrated the success of Bill Clinton's welfare reform. These are, believe it or not, controversial positions with the Democratic Party's base, but Lieberman is so decent and solid a man that the apostasy provoked only a few discomforted rustlings in the crowd. (Lieberman was prepared, I am told, to endorse school vouchers if he'd been asked, which would have rocked the joint, but he wasn't asked.)

It might be argued that former Vermont Governor Howard Dean also passed the Bennett test, but he only did so under duress. He was asked about a quote from 1996, in which he heaped slag upon the Children's Defense Fund's founder, Marian Wright Edelman, for being one of those "liberals" who wrongly opposed the welfare-reform bill. He retracted the slag — Edelman, a study in demure imperiousness, was seated in the front row — but not the sentiment. He said he embraced welfare reform in Vermont and implied that he did it better than Clinton. But then, to hear Dean speak, he did just about everything better in Vermont — a rhetorical tic that is beginning to get on the nerves of his fellow candidates.

In fact, the only other significant event of the evening was a glance that passed between Senators John Kerry and John Edwards when Dean again appropriated the late Senator Paul Wellstone's line "I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." It was a withering glance, and Governor Dean might well be advised, Do not find yourself in a dark alley with either of these men. No doubt, the resentment toward Dean is a consequence of his banty-rooster self-regard, but it is also a result of Dean's success in these early joint appearances. The possibility of Dean's decapitation by either Kerry or Edwards in some future debate is one reason to stay tuned.

The event also was notable for being Florida Senator Bob Graham's first appearance with the rest of the gang. Graham brings two strong qualities to the race. He is a former Governor — and therefore, of necessity, a decision maker and plain-speaker — and he stands an excellent chance of winning his home state, which is mythic among Democrats after the 2000 debacle. But Graham didn't offend anyone; I can't remember a thing he said. (Oh, yes: he reminded the audience that he voted against the war; this drew applause.)

It is no small irony that George W. Bush has liberated both the Iraqis and the Democrats. His ridiculous federal budget has removed a significant, Clintonian restraint on the party: it no longer has to be fiscally responsible. Candidates can promise the moon. Dick Gephardt can say his universal health coverage plan will "only" cost $100 billion a year. Kerry can point out that the Administration is planning new roads, schools, hospitals and schoolbooks in Iraq. "And it is time that they do the same thing here ..." But it is easier for Republicans, who are inaccurately assumed to be adults, to be fiscally irresponsible than it is for Democrats. So the candidates would do well to remember Bennett's advice: their credibility will probably rest on the promises they refuse to make, the inconvenient truths they choose to tell.