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Democrats Still Warming Up to War of Words

Although obscured by the war in Iraq, the pace is accelerating in the 2004 Democratic presidential race.

The candidates laid down an important marker this month when they announced their fund-raising totals for the year’s first quarter.

Last week, most appeared twice together at cattle calls before influential party constituencies. And they are fanning out across the early primary states -- including here, where three of the nine contenders appeared this weekend.

Yet for all the activity, the contest still feels as if it is in exhibition season. Historically, the race for a party’s nomination doesn’t crystallize until the candidates begin contesting each other’s ideas.

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Those debates create the contrasts that help voters sort out their allegiances -- and the confrontations that show which candidates can take, and return, a punch.

The dynamics that would settle the 2000 Democratic race didn’t emerge, for instance, until Al Gore attacked Bill Bradley’s health-care plan and the exchange left Bradley looking impractical and weak.

That trial by fire hasn’t really begun this year. So far, only former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has challenged his opponents, criticizing the four congressional Democrats in the field who supported President Bush on the 2001 education reform bill and the war in Iraq. Those conflicts have ignited Dean’s campaign by defining him in a way that has sent liberal hearts racing.

But the rest of the candidates are still mostly ignoring their rivals -- at least publicly --as they begin explaining their own ideas. The conventional wisdom in most campaigns is that it’s too early -- and too crowded -- to begin throwing elbows.

Yet it’s also clear that when the contenders decide the time is right, they will have plenty to argue about. Even now, likely flash points are emerging. Among them:

* The war in Iraq. Dean has gained great mileage from denouncing the war. But with Saddam Hussein’s regime ousted at a remarkably modest cost in American lives, Dean may be vulnerable to a counterattack later from more hawkish Democrats, such as Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina.

And privately, the hawks (who also include Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri) are itching to join Dean in accusing Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who has blown hot and cold on the war, of trying to have it both ways. An aide to one Democratic hawk predicts that opponents will eventually accuse Kerry of trying to straddle tough choices -- using his swings on the war as Point 1.

* Health care. Gephardt has offered the single most ambitious idea in the race so far -- a tax credit that would cover most of the cost for employers to provide health insurance to their workers. It could significantly reduce the number of uninsured; it could also be enormously expensive.

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Gephardt last week put the cost at about $100 billion a year; some experts believe it would cost at least twice that much.

Expect the other candidates to say the plan is impractical because it would require the government to assume billions in health-care costs that private companies now bear. If Gephardt can’t defend his plan better than Bradley did when his proposal was challenged, it could sink the Missourian’s campaign.

* Guns. There’s a time bomb ticking beneath Dean’s embrace by the left: His views on gun control. Dean says Washington should mostly leave future decisions on guns to the states; he says that if Gore had taken that position, he would have defeated George W. Bush.

But it’s not clear whether ardently pro-gun control liberals in California and elsewhere will agree. One warning sign for Dean came after a forum sponsored last week by the Children’s Defense Fund, when liberal icon Marian Wright Edelman, the group’s founder, denounced his position. “When a child is being killed by guns every three minutes,” she said, “it’s not enough to say, ‘Let the states handle it.’ ”

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* Other social issues. If Gephardt looks strong out of Iowa, count on someone attacking him because he supports more sweeping restrictions than the other Democrats on so-called partial-birth abortions.

If Kerry looks strong out of New Hampshire, it’s possible a rival will attack him in more conservative South Carolina for opposing the death penalty in all cases except terrorism. And if Kerry faces a showdown with Gephardt or Dean in California, expect him to criticize their environmental records.

* Taxes. Democrats are divided on how far to go in challenging Bush’s 2001 tax cut. Kerry, Lieberman and Edwards want to freeze parts of the cut to go into effect in 2004 and 2006; Gephardt and Dean, who would go further by repealing most of the tax cuts already granted in 2001, may accuse them of timidity.

Edwards faces another vulnerability. In 2001, he voted for one budget resolution with a tax cut nearly as large as the $1.35 trillion that finally passed. The others may use that vote against him the way Gore bludgeoned Bradley, a former U.S. senator from New Jersey, for a vote supporting President Reagan’s budget plan in 1981.

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Gephardt, meanwhile, touts his work for President Clinton’s 1993 deficit reduction plan. But Gephardt doesn’t mention voting against the 1997 deal Clinton negotiated to actually balance the budget. Will Lieberman use that vote to paint Gephardt as a big spender?

* Education. With teachers such a large voting bloc in Democratic primaries, Lieberman will face problems over his continued support for experiments to provide private school vouchers to low-income students in poorly performing public schools.

* Trade. Gephardt continues to tout his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and permanent normal trading relations with China, as does long-shot Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio).

Dean also has been sounding more skeptical of free trade. Like Clinton before them, Lieberman and Kerry will make the case for free trade -- banking on the belief that enough jobs now depend on exports and foreign investment to tip the balance even in states with a large union presence, such as Michigan.

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Democrats could start to draw these lines as soon as early May, when they meet in South Carolina for their first formal debate; more likely, they’ll wait until fall.

But whenever the Democrats are ready to rumble, they won’t lack for ammunition.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at www.latimes.com/brownstein.

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