Da Dems' Dilemma—and Ours


Last night's Democratic presidential debate at Maryland's Morgan State University provides more evidence that Fox News Channel is indeed biased toward the right-wing.

Why? Because FNC sponsored and aired a debate that was a stunning showcase of the banality and vacuity of the nine Democratic candidates. It was an evening filled the sort of bland, generally useless statements characterized by this Dick Gephardt line, ""I will be a president every day in that Oval Office who's trying to figure out how every person in this country fulfills their God-given potential, nobody left out, nobody left behind." I can't imagine that even the candidates' families were excited by the performances. The highlights, such as they were, came mostly from Al Sharpton (Sharpton missed the first debate, in New Mexico, due to airplane delays). When asked the toughest question of the evening–"What is your favorite song?"–the Rev. Al responded, "Talking Loud, Saying Nothing," by James Brown, reportedly the inspiration for Sharpton's signature coif.

But for the most part, it was the sort of tired, guaranteed-applause-getter lines that frustrates even diehard Dems. Consider the column by George Packer in the latest Mother Jones, which asks, "Is it worse for the Democrats to lose offering new ideas or to go down defending the policies of the past?" The column (not online as of yet) asserts, "Everyone knows that the Democratic Party has lost its way"–a conclusion easily reached by even comatose viewers of last night's debate.

At the same time, Packer's column unintentionally underscores the Dems' problems. After complaining about the lack of fresh ideas and appeal, the best he can muster as a "new organizing theme–one big enough to encompass a ranges of issues and constitutents–it would be that of the national community." Whatever that means. Worse yet, he proffers two-time presidential loser Adlai Stevenson as the new model for future Democrats (even he doesn't quite believe this, writing, "Adlai Stevenson is a dubious, if not perverse, political role model").

Why should any of this matter to a steadfast non-Democrat–and non-Republican–such as myself? Because in a two-party system (and that's what we're stuck with, however much we don't like it), it's always a good thing to have a strong opposition party. The big political successes of the '90s–welfare reform and balancing the budget–came only because Bill Clinton ushered in the unthinkable: a Republican Congress. There's more to this than simply divided government (though that's generally a good thing). A strong opposition party helps energize political discourse while reining in the worst tendencies of its adversary. Not long ago, the Republican Party played that role to the Democrats. Now it's the Dems' turn and so far it doesn't look like they're up to the task. Which may well mean even more overspending by supposed fiscal conservatives and any number of other policy excesses that tend to happen under one-party rule.