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Laboring Democrats

From the August 18, 2003 issue: The AFL-CIO holds an audition.

Aug 18, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 46 • By DAVID TELL
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LAST TUESDAY IN CHICAGO, for only the second time, all nine candidates for next year's Democratic presidential nomination appeared together--at an event billed as a "working families forum" by its AFL-CIO sponsors. C-SPAN broadcast the session live. Most WEEKLY STANDARD readers no doubt watched all 90 minutes. And took notes. Those of you tending to a sick friend, however, were forced to rely on the following morning's newspaper coverage. Which was notable for (a) how little there was of it; and (b) how little resemblance it bore to what an ordinary viewer might have seen with his own eyeballs. I'll try to catch you up.

Consistent with the "Democratic fratricide" theme that dominates the news lately, post-debate coverage was sour--both about the candidates individually and about their party generally. The story the Knight Ridder chain sent around to its member papers suggested that, "though civil," the AFL-CIO forum ominously "revealed growing tensions" between the Democratic "liberal base" and the party's "centrist wing."

Nah--not really.

It's true there are disgruntled centrists at the Democratic Leadership Council, alarmed at the dudburger campaign being run by their favorite, Joe Lieberman. And it's true that on each of two important subjects, there's another first-tier candidate in the race who doesn't share Lieberman's instincts: Howard Dean on foreign policy and Dick Gephardt on trade. But in fact the party's emotional center of gravity is much closer to Dean and Gephardt than it is to Lieberman and the DLC (whose misfortune it is to agree with that bastard Bush from time to time). And judging from Tuesday's forum, Lieberman seems disinclined to make much stink about it at the moment--at least not when he's in mixed intra-party company. "We're not going to win by being opposed to all tax cuts," the senator offered in his affable, half-apologetic closing statement. "We're not going to earn the trust of the American people by being weak or ambivalent on defense. Let's pull together and fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic party and the future of America."

Unless they signal a serious fight over serious and specific policies--which simply didn't happen in Chicago--words like these aren't a sign of "tension." They're the political equivalent of a bedtime prayer.

Moving to the candidates themselves, in the order they first spoke. Not one of them got a positive media review that I've seen. But the first speaker's notices were decidedly negative.

(1) John Kerry had "a second difficult night at a televised Democratic forum," Adam Nagourney's New York Times dispatch concluded. Kerry's throat was hoarse, you see--"a distraction from what his aides had hoped would be a commanding performance." Such nitpicking! The greater "distraction" was the senator's wonkishness. He claimed that he'd vote against the "Free Trade Area of the Americas" pact "if it were before me today" on grounds that "it doesn't have environmental or labor standards protections in it." (It doesn't have anything in it; ministerial negotiations over the plan's details aren't scheduled to conclude until the end of 2005.) And if we're going to find fault, how's this for nerdy, Dukakisoid self-promotion: "I have offered a [health care] plan that I am proud to say to you has been judged by National Journal's independent group of experts . . . to be the most feasible and the best plan," and so forth.

The plan in question, however, is a perfectly respectable one, and Kerry discussed it comprehensibly--and audibly, despite his croak. He's run first or second in virtually every nationwide Democratic poll. Moreover, and more impressively, Kerry's managed to keep himself in a dead heat with Dean in New Hampshire despite Dean's phenomenal publicity momentum in recent weeks. Did the AFL-CIO event do anything to damage Kerry's standing? No. Bottom line: He's an experienced, well-known, mainstream, "electable" Democrat. No one should write him off.