A Lack of Democratic Leadership

I found this interesting piece in the Politico by David Paul Kuhn about the fears of nervous Democrats who wonder how they'll manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2008 presidential race. Kuhn's piece includes a lot of damning quotes and examples of recent Democratic flops (see Dukakis, Michael, for example), but doesn't really address the issue of why Democrats even end up in these situations to begin with. However, looking at the current "top tier" of the Democratic field, it's easy for me to understand why.

Exhibit A: Consider this piece by the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson. In his commentary, Robinson assails the (three leading) Democrats for not showing straight talk or leadership on the Iraq issue. Perhaps the most important quote in his piece is this:

"The Republican candidates' view of Iraq, Iran and the Middle East is dangerously apocalyptic, but at least it's a vision. What's yours?"
That just about covers it. I can only imagine how frustrated and dejected the antiwar left felt at the recent debate at Dartmouth in which neither Clinton, Obama, nor Edwards could guarantee that the troops would be out of Iraq by 2013. Obviously, these three candidates didn't want to say anything that would jeopardize their chances with moderate and swing voters in November, but the problem is that by showing such timidity and political calculation, they risk losing their base and not making it to November at all.

Richardson, Biden, and Dodd have all expressed firm positions on Iraq, but they are starved for media attention because they are generally considered second-tier candidates. And on top of that, instead of giving their Iraq policy differences a bit more airtime, the media choose to focus on garbage, such as Clinton's "cackle". (Yes, the way a candidate laughs is considered more newsworthy than a substantial difference of opinion regarding our Iraq policy.) Anyway, I don't think it's a coincidence that the three best qualified candidates for president on the Democratic side of the ledger happen to be the three who have expressed the clearest positions on Iraq, but I digress...

Barack Obama had the "judgment" to be against the war from the start, but he doesn't seem to have any plans that deal with the fact that we're there now. He identifies "bad" options and "worse" options, but doesn't really say which options he'd like to pursue. And the fact that he couldn't make any guarantees about withdrawing all U.S. troops by 2013 only serves to muddy his Iraq "purity" just a bit.

John Edwards wants to get 50,000 troops out immediately, though it's unclear where they will be sent or how long it will take to accomplish this. He doesn't believe in keeping troops in Iraq to battle Al Qaeda because he considers that a way of "continuing the war in Iraq." But he also won't pledge to take all the troops out by 2013, so it's hard to understand what role the remaining troops would even have there. And what does he plan to do about the foreign terrorists who are obviously in Iraq now if he doesn't want to "continue the war" there?

Good luck to anyone who endeavors to figure out what Hillary Clinton's position is. She voted for the war, "takes responsibility for her war vote," voted against funding for the surge, blames George Bush for mismanaging the war, says we must get out responsibly, and then voted to designate the Iranian military a "terrorist organization." In other words, she's everywhere.

Remember Robinson's words. At least the Republicans have a vision.

Exhibit B: Consider this piece by Jason Horowitz of the New York Observer. Horowitz's piece talks about anxiety in the Obama camp stemming from the fact that he's not closing the gap with Hillary Clinton. His supporters and donors are uneasy while his campaign staffers and aides try to allay their concerns by reminding them that "early polls don't mean anything" and that "Obama is well positioned in the early states--the states that matter." Okay, that's all well and good, but it illustrates a major problem that Gore '00 and Kerry '04 had: When your current strategy is not working, change it! You would think that most Democrats who criticized Bush for not changing his failing strategy in Iraq would be able to pick up on this. But for some reason, Obama is continuing down his path of optimism, limited engagement, and subtlety. And Clinton is only widening her lead.

Al Gore should have easily trounced George Bush in 2000. Gore was clearly the superior candidate. He had a lot more relevant experience and the advantages of incumbency during a period of unprecedented economic growth. However, he pursued a strategy of running away from the politician who was his greatest weapon. Instead of the focus being on the good things about the '90s, the campaign focus switched to "earth tones, multiple Al Gores, and woodenness." After a hugely successful national convention speech, his lead in the polls began to evaporate. But even though the polls tightened up, Gore did not really change his strategy. (The changes he did make were more in his own personal style, which only intensified the "multiple Al Gore" charges.) The point is, he did not do what he obviously should have done and let the commander in chief become the campaigner in chief. As a result, Gore lost.

The 2004 election was even more winnable. John Kerry had a long record of public service and was a decorated war veteran. By this time, a large segment of the public had soured on the war and was growing tired of George Bush's perceived incompetence (which was later validated in his second term after Katrina and Harriet Miers). Kerry should have mopped the floor with Bush when it came to foreign policy and he could have even towed the traditional Democratic line on social programs without penalty. Instead, Kerry tried too hard to be as likable as Bush was. So rather than engage Bush in a discussion about an end game in Iraq (something that would have played to his strengths), we ended up with an obviously out-of-place John Kerry in hunting gear that became emblematic of his campaign. He was an out-of-touch panderer. And worse yet, Kerry did not seem to make any real changes in his political strategy to change the subject! Bush's 2004 reelection campaign could basically be summed up as "You might not like my positions on the issues, but at least you know where I stand. And in these dangerous times, it's important for a leader to be firm and to know where he stands." As a result, Bush earned "political capital."

Now Obama '08 seems to be traveling down the same woeful path of Kerry '04 and Gore '00. Is Obama really a fighter? Can he be counted on to change his approach when things are obviously not working? Is he really that averse to going on political offense, or has he boxed himself into a corner because of his own rhetoric about "the politics of hope?" (And just for the record, the only reason why I'm singling out Obama here is because he is the best positioned to overtake Hillary Clinton.)

As for Clinton, she doesn't really have to change her strategy to overtake a candidate in a superior position simply because she is the dominant candidate right now. However, Clinton's cautiousness (such as her refusal to engage in "hypotheticals" or to "put anything on the proverbial table when it comes to Social Security") gets at what Bush was able to win against in 2004. You have to be bold if you want to be president. It seems like Clinton is trying to say as little as possible and win the nomination and the presidency on a lack of specificity.

2008 is a very winnable election for the Democrats, but if they do not stop pursuing strategies that aren't working (Obama's subtlety), don't evoke leadership (Clinton's "hypotheticals"), and have little vision (Clinton, Obama, and Edwards on Iraq), then the Republicans may end up turning 2008 into 1988 and win the White House for a third consecutive time. Should that happen, the Democrats will be absolutely devastated.

However, if that happens, the Democrats will have no one but themselves to blame. In politics, you can never beat something with nothing.

3 comment(s):

Silence Dogood said...

Mr. Palmer, if you haven't already you should read "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," I am about half way through and initially thought I would not like because I thought the guy (a clinical phycologist and a phychatirst) was making sweeping generalizations based off of a very small sample set, 30 people, however - thankfully - that is not the whole focus of the book nor his analysis, he makes many of the same arguments you start to elucidate here. A lot of the book focuses on how/why people often vote against their most rational interests or even against "rational argumetns" and how much of voting is an emotional activity much more so than rational as we might like to believe. For instance why all of Al Gore's great facts and figures were forever disarmed and practically worked against him after George Bush delivered his "hell, all these numbers you think this guy would have invented the calculator too" and "fuzzy math" comments.

I think Democrats are positioning themselves for perhaps another masterful grab of "defeat from the jaws of victory" as you put it, and Hillary is just the candidate to do it. She has been working on her moderate to very slightly right of center bonafides so long that she has probably lost her prior appeal with the far left, but never really regained any of the middle.

Though her money, celebrity appeal and familiarity, both to the democratic electorate and with the workings of democratic machine politics will likely pull her through to the nomination as it stands. Not to mention the never to be underestimated nostalgic appeal to Clinton (we saw how well that worked in electing GWB hoping he would be the father re-incarnate...not so much).

I was voting very firmly against Bush in 2004, bur frankly Kerry was kind of a non-starter for me, O.K. but nothing to exciting. Dem's have to realize, like they failed to in 2004, that "anybody but Bush" was not a cohesive message for electing Kerry, or anybody. Scattering from Bush, or the GOP nominee is far from the same as gathering around the Democratic nominee, even if that might seem counterintuitive in a two party system.

Anthony Palmer said...


Thanks again for the comment.

Have you heard of that psychology study that showed how people reacted to political arguments with the emotional parts of their brains rather than the analytical parts? I've been looking all over the net for that study so I could cite it here. It lends credence to the notion that Republicans speak to our hearts while Democrats speak to our heads. Based on the past few presidential election results, guess which approach is more effective?

For Democrats, even though they risk losing a very winnable election, I do believe the Republican field this time is so weak this time that almost any Democrat could win regardless (unless the nominee is Mike Huckabee). At the very worst, I think even Clinton could win, but she'd make the election a lot closer than it has to be.

And for what it's worth, I did not vote for Kerry in 2004. Actually, I voted for Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian Party candidate. Seeing that I'm in South Carolina, it was "safe" to vote for a third party candidate because the outcome of the SC vote was not in question. But yes, I too was not particularly impressed by Kerry even though I thought he was more qualified than Bush. Because SC is such a Republican state though, it really didn't matter who I voted for in the end.

By the way, I think a lot of people think I'm a Democrat. I'm really more of a Libertarian. So I find Ron Paul quite refreshing to listen to. However, I'm a Biden supporter simply because I think his Iraq policy is the most reasonable one out there and nothing else can get done in America (on health care, Social Security, the debt, education, etc.) until the Iraq mess is fixed.

Silence Dogood said...

Mr. Palmer, if I am not mistaken, I think the study you read about is one and the same with the writer of this book (they used sensors to the brain to show how the emotional areas were lightening up when one would have thought the rational cognition areas would have). It was done as a way to overcome blatantly conflicting statements made by their politicain of choice - the statements were often made up for the sole purpose of being conflicting, and partisans 'for' the politician apparently overcame the portrayed inconsistency by using the emotional part of their brain to override the rational part. I believe the author's name is Drew Westen.

I assumed you were nominally a Democrat, but no matter that, the reason your analysis is good is because whatever your interests you seem to be well mature enough put them aside, and have a large degree of intellectual honesty in your consideratins. It is an excellent trait for any analyst and one that takes practice to hone and viligance to maintain - it is one of the big differences between real political science (lamentably more and more sparce and difficult to find) and editorial punditry/policy debates. All have their place, and while I find myself addicted to the latter at times the former is my preference. I consider myself a conservative Democrat, but I think intellectual honesty, which none of us can maintain all the time, an important goal, keeps me from being a blind partisan on any issue/candidate. Also, I fully realize the GOP would have the general public believe cons. dems are supposed to be an extinct animal so don't forget to swing by the antrhopolgy dept. and let them know you spotted one of us....and a Carolina Parakeet too! Ha.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.