Sunday, July 27, 2003

Democrats' challenge: Get past the pessimism

By Chuck Raasch
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - By design or circumstance, the Democrats are in danger of becoming the pessimistic party, counting primarily on bad news to fuel their case against President Bush's re-election in 2004. The danger of such a strategy was evidenced this week. As U.S. troops killed two sons of Saddam Hussein - by all accounts masterminds of a vicious, repressive regime - presidential contender Richard Gephardt was in San Francisco blasting the Bush administration.

"Foreign policy isn't a John Wayne movie, where we catch the bad guys, hoist a few cold ones and then everything fades to black," Gephardt said. In a normal news day, his blast might have resonated heavily, coming from a veteran Democrat on an issue - the continued violence in Iraq - that had started to worry more Americans.

But virtually at the moment Gephardt was delivering his speech blasting Bush, U.S. troops were pulling the bodies of Saddam's two sons from a bullet-blistered house in Mosul, thereby providing a moment of moral clarity and momentum in a war that had been increasingly compared to Vietnam.

Their deaths were hailed as important in the pacification and stabilization of post-Saddam Iraq. News coverage included fresh accounts of the two men's years of torture, rape and murder under the umbrella of their father's oppression.

With the death of Odai and Qusai, the United States could illustrate to Iraqis that Saddam's regime was not coming back. The news came as Bush's approval ratings and the public's assessment of his truthfulness were falling. And the events drowned out the crescendo of doubts being voiced by leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Those doubts were starting to build even from Democrats, like Gephardt, who had supported an October resolution allowing Bush to go to war. Their criticism has been that Bush legitimized the war based on faulty intelligence, and he has not done nearly enough to share the postwar burden with reluctant allies. "My view is that the president has not done what should have been done either before or after" the war, Gephardt said in a July 21 interview with Gannett News Service and USA Today.

In some ways, the Democrats' challenge in 2004 is of tone and emphasis as much as issues and ideology. They cannot win by simply looking like cheerleaders to bad news. Some Americans loved Ronald Reagan for what they saw as his patriotic optimism. Others saw a shallow, naive actor, and despised him. But that part of his character sustained him through tough times, like the Iran-Contra scandal, and it discombobulated the Democrats for much of the 1980s.

Similar dividing lines have formed over Bush. Many Democrats deride him as shallow and deceptive - in over his head on foreign and domestic policy. Some Democrats, most notably former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, seem focused on capitalizing on latent anger over how Bush won the 2000 election in a disputed Florida recount. But a positive Democratic message often is not heard. They weigh in most negatively when the going seems to be toughest: bad unemployment reports or the deaths of U.S. soldiers.

Bush has enjoyed near-record support from Republicans, far more than his father ever did. Unlike his father, he displays a Reaganesque belief in U.S. might and right - and in the universal desire for freedom. The difference in rhetorical tone cannot be dismissed. In hard times, it's hard to win as a naysayer and doubter alone. Franklin Roosevelt is the Democrats' model. In the depths of the Great Depression, he talked about conquering fear with innate optimism that things would eventually turn out all right.

But in 2004, Gephardt derides the memory of American icon John Wayne while Bush talks about freedom for Iraqis. What tone sounds right for troubled times?


Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. Contact him at craasch@gns.gannett.com

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