The early-bird presidential campaign is under way among Democrats with the usual characteristics. Candidates are sucking up to big-money contributors as though fundraising prowess reflects a talent for governing. The media issue “character” assessments and debate who’s ahead in the horse race. But meanwhile, what’s surprising and encouraging is that the early leader in this contest seems to be a dark horse known as Substance. Despite the fog and froth, some candidates are enunciating real ideas–big ideas–and compelling their rivals to respond. That breaks with convention in a party known in recent election cycles for its lameness of thought and obsessive risk avoidance. As we suggested recently, this “vision primary”–the contest for ideas and forward-looking vision–may well be the crucial determinant in whether the Democrats have the self-confidence and muscle to oust George W. Bush next year. It’s too soon to claim their recovery of voice and imagination, but the early signs are promising.
On our scorecard, a gold star goes to Representative Dick Gephardt for enunciating a large-scale plan for national healthcare reform, sweetened with the twist that he would pay for it by repealing Bush’s regressive tax cuts for the wealthy. Some liberal advocates have already attacked Gephardt’s tax-credit approach as too business-friendly; some opposing candidates criticize the boldness of its price tag, more than $200 billion. If his plan sounds to others like halfway reform, Representative Dennis Kucinich proposes to go all the way, with a national health system. Let’s have a lively exchange on these issues, and others. Indeed, let’s hear from candidates who put aside their consultant-made slogans and dig into other serious propositions for governing, like an aggressive agenda for economic recovery and reform, and a sane strategy for replacing Bush’s crackpot imperialism with true internationalism. There’s a long list of challenges. The country wants to hear more.
One reliable indication that big-think substance may be gaining traction is that the corporate Democrats feel the need to attack it. The last thing the Democratic Leadership Council wants is a nominee offering meaningful reform. So its agitprop spokesmen, Al From and Bruce Reed, trot out a warning memo, deriding Gephardt’s bold stroke as a dangerous symptom of the old “pander virus”–that is, telling people what they want to hear–and advising other candidates to pay no attention to those “activist elites” pushing for a bolder agenda. The DLC’s preferred candidate, Senator Joe Lieberman, certainly embraces that strategy, but can you imagine Karl Rove warning Bush about offering big ideas or telling people what they want to hear?
If Democrats want to be taken seriously, candidates will commit themselves to an open convention on the party’s platform–lively debates, regional hearings and floor fights that enrich the party’s vision of the future, even if some planks are beyond the reach of immediate fulfillment. Former Senator Fred Harris suggests his party borrow Goldwater’s old slogan–“a choice, not an echo”–and create the mechanisms to develop policy differences such as a national policy council and grassroots discussion groups (“Paul Wellstone clubs”) to carry the debates forward. Many leading Dems will shrink from the prospect of open, raucous disagreements. We hope the “vision primary” will weed them out.