Running Scared

Rally in St. Louis exposes Democrats' weak strategy

It's one thing for the Democratic Party to be running toward the soft center of American politics, to be portraying itself as the best choice for the mythical Ward and June Cleavers of the land.

It's another to be running scared.

Here in St. Louis on Monday, at the kickoff rally for Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman, the party appeared to be doing both.

On its face, the event was successful. The crowd was large and enthusiastic, unfazed by an hourlong wait in sweltering heat for speeches that were timed perfectly for the 6 o'clock news coverage.

There were no dreaded gaffes, no Monica sound bites, no embarrassing moments, no photo opportunities for Republican attack ads. Choreography was flawless, a giant American flag framing the smiling portrait from one angle, the Arch and Old Court House from another.

The Gores and Liebermans exuded genuine affection for one another and for the crowd. Hadassah Lieberman led off perfectly -- graceful but without too much polish -- and Tipper Gore was equally effective, even with her schmaltzy "Al's always been there for our family and he'll be there for yours" sendoff for hubby.

Joseph Lieberman then stole the show, playing off a couple of signs in the crowd -- "No New Texans" and a child-drawn "Superman, Batman, Lieberman" -- and he was the best of the four in connecting with the faithful. Lieberman, not heretofore known as a dynamic stumper, was at once relaxed and euphoric.

Then there was Gore, who can best be credited with not speaking too long. Had this been a Senate committee hearing, he would have been graded highly for his pensiveness and careful phraseology.

The adjectives "uplifting," "inspiring" and "scintillating" don't rush to mind. Gore was friendly and functional, and there seems little doubt that he means well, but one came away with a sense that letting Gore be Gore will probably mean letting Bush be president.

And this isn't just a matter of style. The content was dominated by garden-variety Democratic themes of fighting for the working class, better education and health care for seniors, but with no more a sense of fire and brimstone than Gore's "Do we want to go forward or backward?" rhetorical appeal to the crowd.

In particular, Gore's central theme -- "I want to fight for you" -- was more patronizing than pulsating.

The record of 22 million new jobs and prosperity came through clearly -- and there were strong points in biographical references to Lieberman's activism in the '60s civil-rights movement and Gore's volunteer service in Vietnam -- but most of the words were confined to unremarkable tripe that could just as comfortably have been stated by the Republican opposition.

The safe generalities succeeded in failing to offend anyone. And nothing more.

Lieberman and, to a lesser extent, Gore contrasted the past eight years of governance with the previous 12 -- studiously avoiding the words "Bush" and "Clinton," however -- but there was nothing approaching the content of the president's electrifying speech to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles just a few hours later.

Indeed, the St. Louis rally may have been more notable for what wasn't said than for what was.

For starters, there was, strangely, no local color whatsoever. Standing in Dick Gephardt's hometown, not one of the four speakers mentioned Dick Gephardt, nor the importance of making him speaker of the House.

Worse yet, with the television-news cameras running live, there wasn't so much as one passing reference to Gov. Mel Carnahan and his challenge of Sen. John Ashcroft, widely viewed as one of the three key Senate races (along with New York and Michigan) in the nation. The words "Make Bob Holden your next governor" should have come from someone's lips but did not.

This rally could have been staged in Anytown, U.S.A.

Setting aside the parochial concerns, the Democrats' glaring omission of any reference to Clinton was especially troubling. One doesn't escape the president's shadow -- be it good, bad or indifferent -- by acting as if the man never existed.

When they do so, as they did Monday, the Democrats essentially accede to the central theme of the Bush-Cheney campaign: Throw the rascals out.

Everyone knows about Monica, the lying and all the rest, but no one thinks that Gore is any more likely to be diddling the next round of interns than is Bush. Gore and Lieberman have more to gain by openly admiring Clinton -- by name -- for his record while acknowledging sadly that everyone knows about those flaws.

As politically illiterate as the American electorate may be, it is perceptive on a visceral level of personality traits exhibited by politicians. Everyone has been disappointed by friends or family at some time -- yes, even in the family-values-toting middle class -- and people relate much better to one who shows compassion and loyalty for a troubled friend than one who cuts that person loose for reasons of expediency.

Gore and Lieberman should be standing up for Clinton and his record -- especially on the economy, health care and crime reduction -- and they should be positioning themselves as enthusiastic about receiving his presidential baton but uninterested in receiving that black book of phone numbers.

On Monday, however, there was a sense of defensiveness about Clinton that also seemed to extend to hiding from the so-called wedge issues -- abortion and gun control -- despite the fact that these centrist New Democrats reside safely in the national mainstream with regard to them. It's one thing not to make these central themes; it's quite another to run like scared rabbits from them.

In a city that strongly opposed concealed-gun legislation, on a day that the National Rifle Association took cheap shots at the Democratic Party in national newspaper ads, there should have been no downside to discussing the dramatic drop in crime rates during the past eight years with policies so scorned by Bush's friends in the NRA. But there wasn't a whisper.

And for the ultimate example, in microcosm, of what's wrong with the feel of the Democrats' campaign, consider this: Loyal supporters from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League told the Post-Dispatch they were barred from bringing pro-choice signs to support the pro-choice Gore-Lieberman ticket. So much for energizing the troops.

On Monday night, Clinton brought down the house with the ultimate Reaganesque question: "Are you better off now than you were eight years ago?"

In almost every respect, for the large majority of Americans, the answer is yes. Running against a dubious and unproven opponent, Gore and Lieberman should be able to lay out the stark contrast between 1992 and 2000, and win going away.

But you don't win a presidential election by trying not to lose.

And the Democrats won't win this one by running scared.