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The Dems' Silver Bullet Blues

Democratic strategists are casting about for a way to beat George W. Bush in 2004. Who knows what cure-all they'll come up with next.

9:00 AM, May 16, 2003 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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FOR SOME YEARS NOW, Time magazine has been the most liberal of America's three major newsweeklies. Still, I never thought I'd see the day when Time's editors would opt to transform their publication into a bulletin board for Democratic-wonk strategy. But that seems to have happened this week, as Time gave Joe Klein 4,000 words of cover-story to ruminate on How to Build a Better Democrat--one who can beat President Bush in the 2004 election.

Klein offers a lot of advice, some sensible, some silly. He rightly notes that the first and most important task for the Democrats is to restore their party's credibility on issues of patriotism and national defense. He also helpfully suggests that the candidates drop the party's congenital posture of party-pooper quibbling for a more optimistic approach. "This is another inveterate Democratic problem: every silver lining comes equipped not just with a cloud, but often with a full-fledged hurricane and heavy coastal flooding," Klein writes. "Who would want to spend four years with such spoilsports whining away on TVs in the kitchens and family rooms of America?"

So far, so good. But then Klein descends into absurdity. He correctly points out that "Democrats haven't done much soul-stirring since the Kennedy era." The key, he says, is to "think big, tap the national spirit of adventure in a way that doesn't involve Abrams tanks." Again, there's nothing wrong with that sentiment. But what grand issue does Klein suggest Democrats use to tap into this national spirit? The environment. However, Klein warns, Democrats shouldn't just trot out the usual "dour, incremental 'energy-independence' schemes" that feature "ho-hum notions . . . conservation, fuel-efficiency standards and the like." No--Democrats should embrace . . . gizmos! "The fun part of the environment is gizmos. The President, a gizmo kind of guy, embraced the hydrogen car. The Democrats could do that and more--nuclear fusion, wind power, digital interstate highways (a computer chip in your car locks you in at 70 m.p.h. a safe distance from the cars in front of and behind you)."

Yep, that's the way to recover the old JFK spirit. As Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address, Americans must be willing to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." And don't forget the gizmos.

Whatever the merit of Klein's specific ideas, at least he's taking a sober approach to the political challenges that American liberalism now faces--which is more than can be said for most liberal intellectuals these days. Take the American Prospect's executive editor, Harold Meyerson, who penned for his magazine's May issue a hysterical screed about George W. Bush titled (I'm not making this up) The Most Dangerous President Ever. Meyerson worked himself into such a lather that by the end of the article he's comparing Bush to Jefferson Davis. Only slightly less nutty is William Greider's cover story in the May 12 issue of the Nation. Greider believes Bush is hell-bent on "Rolling Back the 20th Century."

President Bush, though popular and likely to possess a formidable war chest, is not unbeatable in 2004. Things can still go wrong in the war on terror. Bush's domestic policy agenda has fallen well short of the early promise of "compassionate conservatism" (though, in fairness, some of this is due to the necessary shift of the administration's energy to foreign policy concerns after September 11). And the economy is still sluggish.

But before Democrats start bringing old slogans like "It's the Economy, Stupid" out of mothballs, a dose of realism is in order. Recently, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic firebrands have grown fond of calling President Bush's economic policies "the worst since Herbert Hoover." Certainly the economy isn't growing at the rate most of us would prefer, but things aren't exactly dire, either. Remember the "misery index" of the 1970s--the number derived from combining the rates of unemployment and inflation? Jimmy Carter lost the White House because in 1980 the misery index was approaching 20 percent. Today, it's around 8 or 9 percent.

But the biggest problem facing Democratic hopefuls from what Sen. Bob Graham likes to call "the electable wing of the Democratic party"--candidates who might be inclined to heed the more sensible aspects of Klein's blueprint--is that most Democratic primary voters and activists read stuff like Meyerson and Greider's articles and actually believe it. To these people, George W. Bush really is the font of all evil in American life, and American imperialism really is the greatest threat to world peace.

Whichever Democratic candidate wins their stamp of approval must then turn to voters in the 2004 general election and tell them this: In the midst of World War IV--a struggle that President Bush and his team are doing a remarkable job of winning, steadily deposing nasty dictators and capturing high-level al Qaeda operatives with admirable success--"You should make a change."

That candidate is going to need more political ammunition than "wind power" and "digital interstate highways."

Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.