Let's say you're a major political party down on its luck. In the past few years, you've managed to squander decades-long control of Congress (with only a few short interruptions), you couldn't follow up a two-term incumbency in the White House with a win, you've been tanking in statehouses across the nation, you've got declining voter enrollment, yadda yadda yadda.
What day do you pick for the first debate among your party's candidates for Campaign 2004? The same day as a couple of NFL playoff games, the bowl game that decides the college football champ (well, sort of), a full slate of new episodes on Fox's not-incorrectly named "Laugh Out Loud Sunday," and the season premieres for two popular HBO series.
To top it off, your top would-be presidents--two of whom don't even bother to show--spend most of their time complaining that the Republicans have improperly implemented programs that you totally agree with. To wit, these exchanges from yesterday's Democrat debate:
[Rep. Dick] Gephardt accused [Gov. Howard] Dean of tempering his support for trade agreements to curry favor with labor unions.
"Howard, you were for NAFTA, you came to the signing ceremony. You were for the China agreement," Gephardt said. "It's one thing to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk."
Dean said the agreements as implemented by the Bush administration have "globalized the rights of multinational corporations, but they did not globalize the rights of workers, they did not globalize human rights, environmental rights, the right to organize."
Dean...assailed Democratic rivals in Congress for voting for Bush's education program, the No Child Left Behind Act, which he contended has failed in its stated mission to rescue failing public schools.
[Sen. John] Kerry defended his vote, noting that his Massachusetts Democratic colleague, Ted Kennedy, was a key sponsor. "Ted Kennedy, is the greatest champion of education in America," he said. "He didn't put this in place to have it implemented this way.
The most embarrassing moment may have come when Dean insisted on a show of hands from those who would support the eventual nominee. As someone who leans neither Democrat nor Republican, this was the sort of cringe-inducing showcase that helps explain declining party affiliation.
On second thought, maybe the Dem planners knew what they were doing when they slotted this debate into a time when no one would be watching.