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Tuesday, November 29

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The Republicans won the Convention Round of Election 2004. They were the clear victor; if I were to grade the two conventions, I'd give the Democrats a C, C+ and the Republicans an A or A+. The Democrats were in a damned if we do/damned if we don't situation; if they focused the convention on attacks on the President, it would've been, "See, the Democrats have no vision, no ideas; they just want to get back into power." So they avoided too many personal attacks on Cheney and Bush -- not bringing up the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden; not flogging the lack of a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein; not defining George W. Bush as the flip-flopper he is and pointing out the many things he has promised and failed to do, or the things he went back on.

The Republicans, on the other hand, went for the jugular, subscribing as usual to the Lee Atwater School of Diversionary, Dishonest Attack Politics. Zell Miller's accusations against Kerry, delivered with such rage that he discredited himself even as he gave his speech, was especially dishonest and repulsive. Miller knows all the things he alleged were false. (Those weapons Kerry supposedly voted against? Actually, he, along with five Republicans, voted against two appropriations bills that passed and were eventually used to build those weapons -- during a time when the Secretary of Defense, a fellow named Dick Cheney, was trying to slash even more money out of the budget.)

No matter what side of the aisle you're on, you have to admit that the Democrats failed to run a successful convention, because they didn't do any party building -- that is the ultimate aim of a Convention. What the Democrats had was a pep rally for John Kerry, and that's dangerous because an individual is always open to easier attacks than an organization; a good organization can withstand a withering offensive, but an individual very rarely can.

Who is John Kerry? According to the DNC, he is a war hero, a good military leader. But what else? The Democrats made a fatal error that I hoped they wouldn't make back on March 10th. Back then I wrote:

If he knows what's good for him, after winning the party's nomination he won't mutter George W. Bush's name again until December. His tack should be, "This election has little to do with George W. Bush. It has to do with a failed policy. It has to do with a renegade, partisan agenda that has wrecked our economy, our environment, and has dragged America's name through the mud. I have a policy that will work." ... Who matters are those voters who instinctually don't like Bush but want an alternative who has something to say besides, "Bush is mean! I hate Republicans!"

The Democrats did not focus on their policies for the future, and they defined themselves and their candidate one way more than any other: as Not George Bush.

Whenever any subject or individual defines it/himself using another individual (in this case John Kerry = Not George Bush), he allows his own definition to be vacuous, to be amorphous. He allows that other subject to define him by redefining itself.

Bush and the Republicans played their "Compassionate Conservative" schtick again and in doing so, perhaps being Not George Bush is not so attractive to those precious swing voters.

This is the problem of the modern Democratic Party. Its schizophrenia has made it almost impossible for the party to successfully define itself. Whereas the Republicans had a cohesive Convention in which they laid out vague policy positions (despite the fact that their party platform is far more conservative than the popular figures -- Pataki, Giuliani, Schwarzenegger, McCain -- they trotted out) that were idealistic in tone, the Democrats failed to talk policy -- to boil down what it means to be a Democrat into simple language, they way Bill Clinton could.

Clinton gave the closing address on the first night of the convention; and in that address, he tried to set a tone for the rest of the Democrats. He came out and did some good old fashioned party building; repeatedly, he said things like:

If you agree with these choices, you should vote to return them to the White House and Congress. If not, take a look at John Kerry, John Edwards and the Democrats ... If you agree with their choices, vote to continue them. If not, join John Kerry, John Edwards and the Democrats in making America safer, smarter, and stronger ... We tried it their way for 12 years, our way for eight, and then their way for four more ... When I was in office, the Republicans were pretty mean to me. When I left and made money, I became part of the most important group in the world to them. At first I thought I should send them a thank you note -- until I realized they were sending you the bill.

Define your opposition -- build up your party. You don't need to do too much work on John Kerry and John Edwards if you make it clear to the voters what Democrats stand for. By doing that, you are trusting voters to make the logical conclusion: We are better off in the hands of Democrats than Republicans. And we are; Clinton proved that, and the facts prove it.

But whereas the Republicans built up their party throughout the convention, defining themselves as the optimistic party hoping to build a safe future for our country and talking about making life easier for the average American, the Democrats pounded on Kerry's military record and talked about the myriad social issues that have throttled Democrats for 25 years.

Clinton said in his speech, "They are borrowing ... from foreign governments, mostly Japan and China ... how can we enforce our trade laws against our bankers?" A brilliant bit that boiled down economic realities into a simple statement; meanwhile Al Gore was talking about 2000, Ted Kennedy was lobbing weak jabs at Bush, Wesley Clark -- who gave a great speech -- talked about great Democratic military leaders of the past, and Barack Obama talked about our Awesome God and our gay friends. Not bad speeches objectively, but not what the Democrats needed. They needed straight talk on the economy, and they needed the realities of failed foreign policies, and they flunked it. Flunked pointing out the morass of fiscal irresponsibility, reckless deregulation and government spending that George Bush has sunk us deep into.

It is easy to write this column for this site and talk about Democrats and liberalism and whatever else, and it is self-congratulatory perhaps and preaching to the choir, and that is the problem. Democrats don't challenge themselves for a self-definition, and that showed in their convention. It is not enough to be a Democrat because you're pro-choice, or you're a peacenik, or because you hate George Bush. It's not enough to be a Democrat because you're too embarrassed to tell your friends you're a Republican. It has to mean something, or else you're stuck defining yourself by what the other guy does, and that's always a risky proposition -- it always leaves you susceptible to an unsatisfying and unflattering transmogrification if your opponent successfully brands themselves as something positive.

It does mean something to be a Democrat. There are a set of principles there. The Republicans believe that competition legitimizes all inequities. In other words, they believe there are no real structural disadvantages facing millions of Americans, but rather the lack of adequate, free competition that would naturally engender equality. This is, of course, a complete falsehood: it is the ideology of people seeking to entrench privilege. Democrats believe that it is the role of government only to remove obstacles -- not to give handouts, as the Republicans allege, but rather to knock down the vestiges of institutional obstruction and allow people to succeed on their own. We believe in the free market, too -- it is Big Business that hates a free market, it is huge corporations and the immensely wealthy that have for years manipulated the government in order to tighten their hold on markets.

Let me give another example:

At the Republican Convention, speaker after speaker hammered away at tort reform, invoking the omnipresent bogeyman of The Trial Lawyers. Ask yourself, why are Republicans so opposed to Trial Lawyers? It is because they retard the ability of business to run roughshod on the populace. "Frivolous Lawsuits" is a monumentally exaggerated specter propagated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in order to forestall what they see as yet another means of that dreaded policy of "redistribution of wealth."

Remember the story of Ford doing an actuarial cost/benefit analysis of the Ford Pinto, and decided that it would cost more to recall the car than pay the lawsuits that would result from allowing an unsafe car to kill a few dozen people? If there were a cap on lawsuits, how easy would it be for any business -- or, yes, doctor -- to do a simple analysis of the same type? Ford knew people were going to die, but they figured that they could afford lawsuits easier than an entire recall, so they knowingly let people perish. That's why Democrats oppose tort reform; because it keeps Big Business honest.

You didn't hear that at the convention, did you? And how long did it take me to explain it?

It has to mean something again to be a Democrat -- because otherwise, we are the irrelevant opposition party, the 21st Century Whigs, and we will never survive.

GB store


Mike / September 8, 2004 10:50 AM

In a lot of ways, framing the debate over any issue is deconstruction of the other guy's arguements. But in politics, too many people take too high a road or way too low.
A lot of Democrats assume that people read the Economist, the Nation and the NY Times every day before lunch, when really there are very few people like that out there. Then there are Dems who think the voters are illiterate troglodites that just respond to chanting and miniature American flags.
The reason someone like Obama is so popular, is because he doesn't treat people like this. He will talk about serious issues while on the stump without the sloganeering, but he does it as both an explanation and as a personal discussion. He brings tangible topics up such as min. wage and health insurance, he doesn't harp on three key sentences for weeks on end.
Sincere appeal to the public mind can make a lot more people cross the Rep./Dem. line than childish attacks and name calling.

J / September 10, 2004 10:35 AM

Now that is good writing. Way to go Ramsin.

However, I think tort reform is an important issue in keeping certain things like healthcare costs in check, so it shouldn't be written off completely.

Ramsin / September 10, 2004 10:45 PM

Thanks, J, I'm not sure if you're serious or not, but I'm glad you brought it up.

"Tort Reform" is a bogus issue, a bogeyman like Ronald Reagan's "welfare mothers" of the 1980s. Reforming torts isn't about medical malpractice, anyway; it is a ploy by big business to rob consumers of their rights.

This is actually going to touch on my column for later this month, so I'll be brief:

A Department of Justice report from 2000 definitively proved that "tort reform" won't do a thing to stem healthcare costs, because the idea that there are these outlandish "awards" being paid across the country is a myth. The DOJ report found:

-Between 1992 and 1996, jury awards declined by 47% in tort cases.
-The median final award to plaintiffs who won their tort trials in 1996 was $30,000, and it has remained at that number or declined since;
-Damages of over $200,000 occurred in only 17 percent of tort cases.
-Only 39 percent of tort cases involved a plaintiff suing a business; 42 percent were individuals suing each other!
-Only 11 percent of tort cases were for medical practice in the period studied. Eleven percent is hardly a burden on our judicial system.
-Punitive damages--what tort "reformers" call the "lottery" of the judicial system--were awarded in only 3.3 percent of tort cases.

Surely, there are some "frivolous" lawsuits ever year, but the number is within the margin of error (i.e., they are few enough that they are simply abberatious), but not enough to keep healthcare costs down by any means.

It is the insurance companies--who currently enjoy an illogical exemption from reporting the reasons for cost increases--who need to be reformed, not the bogeyman of torts.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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