Where are the Democrats? By this time four years ago, at least half a dozen Democrats were openly running for president. But less than 10 months away from the Iowa caucus, it looks like George Bush will run without major party opposition in 1992.
Of course, that won't happen. The Democrats will offer voters some alternative to Bush, if only as a matter of habit. But the question remains: Why are there no Democratic presidential candidates?
One obvious answer is the resounding success of the Persian Gulf War. For at least 12 years voters have perceived Democrats as weak on defense. One Democratic president got us involved in Vietnaim; another stood by as Iranians seized the American embassy and held our citizens hostage.
Saddam Hussein showed us that the post–Cold War world is still a dangerous place. And George Bush demonstrated that Republicans can successfully navigate these treacherous waters.
That leaves Democrats in a curious dilemma. Those who were antiwar reinforced their wimp image. And hawkish Democrats—such as Sen. Albert Gore (Tenn.) just look like a Republican elite. "You know that I can keep our allies in line and Third World bullies in their place," Bush can tell voters. "But this Gore character is untested."
But this is only part of the story. The truth is that even before the war potential Democratic candidates were keeping their campaigns in low gear.
The problem is that Democrats still haven't found the Issue: the one policy that voters will love and that Democrats can make the center of their platform. For Republicans, the issue was taxes. Ronald Reagan successfully painted Democrats as the tax-and-spend party. And voters, tired of finding the federal government reaching for their wallets all the time, gave the GOP three successive landslide victories in presidential elections.
The Democrats keep trying out different ideas: protectionism, class warfare, competence. None has fired the imaginations of voters. This year the Issue was supposed to be the environment. Democrats were certain that voters wanted them to spend billions to clean up the earth. But the resounding defeat of environmental initiatives in several states dashed Democrats' hopes.
So once again they're groping. And no Democrat will run until he finds the Issue. For now, the plan is to focus on domestic issues. "With the Gulf War ended, public attention will return to the U.S. domestic agenda, where the President was perceived as faltering when the war began," writes Democratic consultant Ted Van Dyk in the Los Angeles Times.
In November, Bush did seem to be on the defensive. The economy was faltering, and by agreeing to raise taxes Bush angered the right wing of his party and seemingly threw away the issue that had taken him to the White House.
But in hindsight, Bush's budget deal with the Democrats probably helped him politically. For every new domestic program that Democrats propose, Bush just has to ask, "How much will it cost?" The president can simply point out to voters that he gave the Democrats all they wanted to reduce the deficit, and they just came back for more money. The Democrats are still the tax-and-spend party, but Bush has learned his lesson.
Will voters trust George Bush again? Maybe not. A Democrat could potentially outflank Bush by pressing New York Sen. Daniel Moynihan's proposal to cut the Social Security tax. Even a 16-year-old flipping burgers after school feels this tax. But Democrats haven't embraced this plan. They're afraid other taxes would have to be raised to offset the revenue loss, leaving voters with the impression that the Democrats once again are raising taxes, not that payroll taxes are being cut.
But other taxes don't have to be raised. A candidate could also support cuts in federal spending. Subsidies for big business, the arts, foreign governments, and corporate farmers aren't terribly popular with voters. Combining these proposals with a little populist rhetoric—and a tax cut everyone can feel—could be the mixture for electoral success.
More likely, however, the party activists who vote in primaries and caucuses really do want tax-and-spend candidates, so any Democrat who tried this would never even get to face Bush. But things don't look completely hopeless for Democrats. There's always 1996.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Invisible Men".