IF A DRUM BEATS IN THE FOREST . . .
Correction: In last weeks column I said that Wesley Clark had voted for George W. Bush in the last presidential election. I was wrong. By his own account, Clark voted for Gore in 2000 and for Clinton in the two elections before that. The last Bush he voted for was George H.W. Bush in 1988. Such mistakes have a way of taking on a life of their own, so please correct this one with anyone you might have sent the column to. Im sorry I screwed up.
My friends in the Wesley Clark campaign are getting all excited. My friends in the Howard Dean campaign have been excited for months. I dont have any friends in the Kerry or Gephardt campaigns, but Im sure the good folks there are excited too. Each of these groups is caught up in their own candidates meetings or meet-ups or speeches. As a result, they are now disposed to believe that most everyone else out there--at least every Democrat--is as enthralled by their candidate as they are.
I have a friend in New York City who has not been very politically active in the past, but now hes been to several meet-ups for Dean and hes convinced that a whole new political movement is underway, that the world of American politics is being revolutionized by the Internet and by a new kind of grassroots organizing and by the charisma of his candidate.
I admire my friends enthusiasm. I believe that kind of enthusiasm is absolutely essential if our democracy is going to work. But now I want to drag him back to earth.
Its time for everyone beating the drums for any particular Democratic candidate to step back for a reality check. Heres reality, people: The vast majority of American voters dont care about your candidate, one way or the other. They dont care about any candidate. In fact, a goodly portion of Democrats dont care, either. If a drum beats in the forest . . .
Some facts: In a CBS News poll taken less than five weeks ago, two-thirds of all registered voters could not name a single Democratic presidential candidate off the top of their heads. Thats right, more than 60% of voters didnt know the name of a single Democratic candidate. Not Dean. Not Kerry. Not Clark. I suspect that that hasnt changed much in the last five weeks.
In another poll taken just this past week, 41% of registered voters said they are paying no or almost no attention to the 2004 presidential race. Another 41% claim to be paying some attention--a lukewarm commitment at best. Thats 82% of voters who pretty much have other things on their minds than how Howard is dealing with Wesley or whether Richard is drawing voters from John.
As for all you Dean and Clark enthusiasts, listen to this: As of last week, 70% of Democrats had not heard enough about either of your candidates. Thats a nice way for the pollsters to say your candidates havent even entered the realms of consciousness of your own party.
This isnt to say you shouldnt get excited about your candidates. Its just to say that you need to pace yourselves a bit and, to employ a common sports metaphor, keep your focus. Like a college football team, you dont want to peak in the pre-season or use up all your adrenaline in your excitement over a locker-room speech.
You also need to remember that your job is still to reach all those undecideds out there--not just those undecided Democrats you want to attract to your candidate in the primaries, but, even more important, those undecided Independents whom you need to lure away from George W. Bush in the 2004 election. Dont go around congratulating yourselves on your fund-raising and meet-ups.
There just arent that many of you out there, no matter how crowded the high school gym where your candidate gave his last speech. Remember the big picture: Beating Bush is far, far more important than getting your particular candidate elected. Millions of Democrats, whether yet engaged in the primary campaign or not, are all agreed that Bush needs to go and just need to be encouraged. Meanwhile, millions of Independent voters are waiting to be convinced. They--the distracted and the Independent--are your market. They are the audience you need to reach.
Your job may be to plump for your favorite candidate. But your mission is to defeat George W. Bush and his reckless, repressive, elitist, opaque, cronyist, thoroughly polluted administration. To do this, you must marshal your facts. Make sure you know what Bush and his gang have done to the Clean Air Act. Make sure you know what theyve done to the Freedom of Information Act. Make sure you know whom theyve nominated to federal judgeships and what narrow minds those nominees have.
Learn how Bush, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft have used the terrorist attacks and the resulting U.S. Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act to lead us closer to a police state than at any other time in our history. Learn the facts about the cost, in humanity and resources, of the Iraq War and the Mad George tax cut. Arm yourselves with facts, facts and more facts. Then find a bunch of Independent voters and pepper them with those facts. Be nice, but make them listen.
Speaking of facts, heres a polling fact that should encourage us all. Its important enough to put in bold type: In last months CBS News poll, only 38% of all registered voters predicted that George W. Bush will be reelected in 2004. Fifty percent said a Democrat could win.
Thats an amazing pair of numbers. The president who shortly after 9/11 had the highest approval rating in U.S. history is now eminently vulnerable in the next election, according to the American electorate.
Compare that to a poll in November, 1991: At that time, a year before the 1992 presidential race, 47% of registered voters expected George H.W. Bush, fresh from his Desert Storm triumph, to win the next years presidential race. In other words, George the Baby is now doing worse than his father was doing at about the same time relative to the election 12 years ago. And we all know what happened to George the Grown-Up in 1992.
Democrats have reason, then, to hope. And reason to work. So whether youre aligned or unaligned when it comes to particular Democratic candidates, keep fighting the good fight. Just remember that the fight is not against Dean or Clark or Kerry or Gephardt. Theres a dragon to be slain.