By Lee Walczak After a long period marked by snoozy debates, arcane squabbles over candidates' supposed similarities to GOP bad-boy Newt Gingrich, and a massive tune-out by the American electorate, things are starting to get interesting in the Democratic Presidential race. Interesting as in hot.
On Nov. 18, six of the party's White House hopefuls took the stage at a New Hampshire forum sponsored by the AARP, the venerable seniors' lobby, and lambasted their hosts for backing a Republican plan that would give elders a new $400 billion prescription drug benefit. You don't see that too often.
The very same day, Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the current party front-runner, journeyed to Houston to deliver a searing indictment of corporate malfeasance and President Bush's embrace of "Enron economics" -- a set of feed-the-rich policies Dean considers latter-day economic royalism.
BURNING RUBBER. There's more. On Nov. 19, Dean's archrival, retired General Wesley Clark, fired off some howitzers of his own. In a campaign stop in Brookline, Mass., home of Michael "Hit Me Again" Dukakis, the former NATO commander accused Dean of advocating a crippling dose of reregulation, protectionism, and class envy. "We can't fix our economy by going back to the failed policies of the past or by abandoning our support for the winning strategies of the Clinton years," Clark charged, sounding positively Bushian in the process.
What's going on here? The rubber is finally starting to meet the road in the Democrats' long race for the White House. Let's take the drug-bill bashing first. Rhetorically, the Dems say they represent the best interests of seniors and that no drug benefit is preferable to the abomination that Hill leaders unveiled this week. But in reality, they're reacting to the stinging possibility that Republicans may be about to snatch one of their best issues.
True, the actual cash subsidy provided in the Hill GOP plan isn't as generous as Democrats wanted. But it's a start, and partisan claims that the blueprint conceals a secret agenda to kill off the government-run health plan aren't borne out by the facts. In reality, House conservatives won the right only to fund a few innocuous pilot projects to test private plans' competition with Medicare. Those would be launched in six cities after an interval of seven years. A threat to the system? Hardly -- it's more like a fig-leaf for disappointed GOP privatizers.
ENRON GAMBIT. The AARP, which sensibly prefers half a loaf to none, took a quick look at this bill and signed on the dotted line. But frozen in place by the scorched-earth strategy of congressional liberals, Democratic Presidential contenders continue to insist that the bill be voted down, along with practically every other Bush-backed piece of legislation. Thus was produced that rarest of events in Presidential politics -- the reverse pander. Not only did the candidates miss the boat on the prescription-drug bill but they also managed to alienate a key constituent group in the process.
That lapse can be attributed to political klutziness, but the developing Clark-Dean fight over economics is something more substantive. Basically, Dean went to the doorstep of the former high-flying Enron to attempt to tie George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney to grab-and-run Enronomics. "At Enron, those at the top enriched themselves by deceiving everyone else and robbing ordinary people," Dean thundered. "The Bush Administration is following their lead."
How? By its backing of deregulation, Wall Street greedheads, mutual-fund chiselers, rapacious oil companies, and the like. To Dean, it's starkly simple: "The ethos of Enron is where our [current] politics and policies have led us in America." His answer to reining in runaway corporations, as relayed to a Washington Post reporter on the trip down to Houston: "Reregulate them."
"MISSING THE POINT." By attempting to tie a probusiness Administration to the seemingly endless saga of accounting scandals and corporate crime, Dean is taking a gamble. He's attempting to solidify his populist-liberal base in advance of the Jan. 19 Iowa caucus, a contest in which progressive voters play a disproportionately large role. And he's trying to ensure that even if the macroeconomy improves substantially by next November, a Democratic contender will still be able to score points against Bush by harping on the issues of fairness and social equity.
"We shouldn't be afraid to use words like reregulation anymore," says a senior Dean strategist. "By attacking the governor's speech, Clark was really missing the point. Dean is trying to pull the country back to the center again after years of radical Republican deregulation." Adds campaign manager Joe Trippi: "If Dean's Democratic opponents aren't concerned with protecting consumers, investors, workers, and the average American, then they are truly out of touch."
Over in Clarkland, a shimmering netherworld that exists somewhere between Kosovo and Little Rock, the general's strategists are exulting, because they sense that Dean has just underscored their contention that the governor from Ben & Jerry's is too liberal to be entrusted with the economy -- or much else.
PARTY PLANNING. "Dean talked about the need to reregulate a lot of the American economy," says Matt Bennett, Clark's communications director. "General Clark says, 'Look, the Clinton legacy was 22 million new jobs, and I'm not sure what Howard Dean objects to in that.'" The differences are fundamental, adds Clark campaign pollster Geoff Garin. Clark "has paid a little more attention to the importance of reducing the deficit" than has Dean, Garin notes, and "I don't think it's his instinct to think that the right answer is necessarily a Big Government solution to each and every problem."
Bottom line: View the Medicare drug spat as another split in Democratic ranks, one that can't be helpful in the long-run effort to unseat Bush. But the Dean-Clark tussle over economic philosophy is something bigger and worth watching. It's a debate over whether Clinton-style New Democratic doctrine ought to be replaced in favor of a fiery old-time brand of economic populism. That's an argument that will go well beyond Election 2004, to the very core of what the Democratic Party stands for. Walczak is Washington bureau chief for BusinessWeek