Original Party Animals

Party of three: Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich, and Howard Dean (left to right) make their cases to the party faithful in St. Paul
Craig Lassig

Last week, when Democratic bigwigs from across the country assembled in St. Paul to take a look-see at the party's presidential aspirants, one buzzword trumped all the others. Optimism. Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, state committee functionaries, candidates--they were all so inflated with hope you worried that one of them might explode and set off a chain reaction.

Well, that much is obligatory: At this point in the game, everybody's an optimist. As a psychological stressor, this air of forced cheer probably accounts for a number of the common pathologies among office seekers, not the least of which is chronic dissembling.

Still, not all the good cheer seemed feigned. Billed as a joint meeting of the Association of State Democratic Chairs and DNC, the presidential beauty contest attracted a hefty turnout of party insiders--about 500 people, including representatives from all 50 states. In the view of Minnesota DFL chair Mike Erlandson, the Minnesota Democrats on hand were "more energized" than at any time in recent memory.

Maybe, maybe not. The DFLers on hand were unquestionably more energized than the last time they gathered in the basement ballroom at the Radisson Riverfront Hotel. Of course, that occasion--election night 2002--was one of the most dismal and surreal episodes in party history, as the Democrats suffered historic losses in the blow-back from the now infamous Wellstone memorial.

On the surface, there were legitimate reasons for optimism among the Dems at the Radisson. For one thing, with the Republicans in control of the presidency and Congress, the Democratic candidates are now free to blame every conceivable woe on the GOP--even those with bipartisan fingerprints. Who's to blame for the lousy economy, the bulging federal deficit, corporate corruption, and the rising body count in Iraq? Bush, Bush, Bush, and Bush.

Whatever else they lack (and they lack plenty, including a clear front-runner), the Democrats have no shortage of bombs to lob the president's way. So that's exactly what they did.

Even by the standards of such forums, the rhetoric was heated--especially among the party's outsider candidates. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (one of the three candidates who appeared in the flesh at the meeting, and the one for whom there was the most visible enthusiasm) called Bush and his policies "despicable" at least three times in his appearance. "As they say in Texas," Dean added in a comic aside, "the president is all hat and no cattle."

Meanwhile, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich--the articulate and passionate leftist who is the closest thing to a Wellstone-like figure in the race and, hence, easily marginalized--bluntly pronounced the Iraq war "fraudulent." But Kucinich earned his biggest applause with his declaration that the Bush administration "is all about wrecking everything that Democratic administrations have been building in the 20th century."

Similar, if less sharply populist, themes were invoked by the centrist candidates, including the three--John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Richard Gephardt--who appeared at the forum via videoconference. (Naturally, the fact that the party's best-known candidates were not on hand at the meeting was also blamed on Bush. It seems that Karl Rove, Bush's chief political advisor, convinced Republican congressional leaders to schedule a prescription-drug vote for the day of the forum, thus keeping the trio in Washington and spoiling the Democrats' fun--or so went a popular theory at the gathering.)

But insofar as the optimism on display this weekend was genuine, it may have sprung from a more elemental source: helpless, baseless rationalization. When things look as bad as they do for the Democrats right now, how likely is it that they'll get any worse?


Unfortunately for the Democrats, the answer may well be "pretty damn likely." Why? Well, look at the candidates. Of the six who spoke, none emerged as anything near a consensus favorite. That may not seem surprising. But by many accounts, it was Bill Clinton's impressive showing at this same meeting in the summer of 1991 that propelled him to the front of the '92 field.

But the Dems' lack of distinction hardly ends there. You can start by noting that the best orator among the participants, the Rev. Al Sharpton, is also the most unelectable. Sharpton was the funniest of the speakers as well, though in one sense his best jabs were at the essential unseriousness of the event. Asked how he would handle the federal deficit, Sharpton said he was uniquely qualified because "I've been in a deficit most of my life." The line that got the heartiest laughs: "Some people say, 'Al, can you win?' Well, Bush didn't win and he's president!"

If Sharpton were mounting a serious campaign for the nomination, he would not have been received so warmly. But he cozied up to the insiders by effectively declaring his candidacy the front for a voter-registration drive.

To varying degrees, all the candidates managed to score hits on Bush--but then he's an easy target, especially when one is preaching to the choir. Mostly, the candidates focused on the state of the economy and health care. The doves--Kucinich, Dean, Sharpton--also took shots on the subject of Iraq and the missing weapons of mass destruction.

The antiwar message was received warmly by many in attendance, but it figures to be a moot point so far as the insider nominees (John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman) are concerned. They have already lined up on the side of Bush's war; if it turns out to have been sold on false facts, they are stained too.

Here's another problem for the Democrats in 2004: An alarming percentage of Americans simply don't know, and apparently don't care to know, the truth about the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq. Consider the recent poll conducted at the University of Maryland. The survey found that one-third of the public believes WMDs have already been discovered in Iraq, and more than a fifth believe that the Iraqis used chemical or biological weapons in the war. (An earlier version of the poll--taken in January--found that just 19 percent of respondents understood that none of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis.)

That, in a nutshell, is the Democratic conundrum. If crucial swing voters don't care about the facts, what good is having the facts on your side? And it's a problem that goes beyond WMD. In Bush's preemptory swing through the Twin Cities, the President once again made the assertion that his tax cuts constitute a boon to the common man. In the blizzard of coverage that accompanied the president's visit, there were the requisite challenges to the claim, but the drop-head in the Star Tribune--and the theme in the TV coverage--was this: The rebate check's in the mail.


On Saturday morning, with the candidates all long gone and party functionaries tending to the final day of business, Mary Stanley was selling political buttons from a table in the Radisson basement. A retired businesswoman from Fresno, Stanley volunteers for the National Women's Political Caucus, an ostensibly nonpartisan organization that aims to get more women elected and appointed to government jobs.

Sales, Stanley reported, had been brisk. She figured she unloaded about $3,000 worth of *merchandise, which is above average for an event of this size. The Bush-bashing items moved quite nicely. Stanley said she sold all of her "I did not have corporate relations with that man" buttons. Another button, depicting Attorney General John Ashcroft in mullah garb with the legend "We have to destroy civil liberties in order to save them," also sold well, she said.

Among the candidate merchandise, the best seller was the Dean stuff. "I came in with about a hundred Dean buttons, sold out, and I've taken orders to send about 30," Stanley said. "Democrats need someone who can get their juices flowing, and Dean seems to have that knack."

She figured she sold about 85 Kerry buttons, 25 Kucinich buttons, and about 25 John Edwards buttons, this in spite of the fact the North Carolina senator was a no-show. Attendees purchased a meager 10 Lieberman buttons, which was an especially poor showing considering the Connecticut senator's reputed status as one of the leading candidates. Heck, the "You've gotta have Hart" buttons sold nearly as well.

Stanley said there was a lot of interest in merchandise that she didn't have. Inquiries about General Wesley Clark buttons were high. Plenty of folks snapped up "Al Gore in 2004" buttons.

The best seller of all? Those would be the Hillary buttons.

That may portend well for 2008. But it doesn't say much for '04.

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