On Saturday May 3, 2003 the Democratic presidential candidates will have their first debate, an absurd eight months before the first primary of 2004.
God help us.
American campaigns, by far the longest in the world, are getting longer, for no good reason. Candidates must now be marathoners, which in my mind, means they're masochists.
The ultimate lonely long-distance runner in the Democratic field is Gary Warren Hart. He's been running since 1983.
Age breeds some wisdom and Hart plans to skip the South Carolina charade.
Technically, Hart is just flirting with running. He says he'll decide soon whether to get in, but added, "I am not about to wait another 20 years."
Hart brought his maybe-campaign by CBS News this week. These little candidate get-togethers usually focus on the mechanics of running for president – name recognition numbers, approval ratings, fundraising progress, consultants under contract, target states, and handicapping the rest of the field.
Hart didn't talk tactics. In the realm of tactics and mechanics, Hart doesn't have a prayer. He talked about the gargantuan wads of cash spent in presidential campaigns with genuine bewilderment and disdain, not with the false sanctimony of someone who is going to go out and raise the money anyway.
A Hart campaign would be the longest of long shots and the political press corps has not taken his flirtation very seriously. He's been out of politics for 15 years. He was never a natural on the stump. And, of course, there's the fact that his 1988 campaign came to an abrupt and embarrassing end because of a sex scandal and a boat called "Monkey Business."
"He's got an expiration date on him that says 1988," a Colorado pollster told Hart's hometown paper.
Indeed, I glibly dismissed Hart in a column I wrote in February. I shouldn't have.
In 1984, Gary Hart was the candidate of "new ideas." His opponent, Walter Mondale, a believer in old ideas, responded by swiping a then-famous Wendy's ad – "Where's the beef?"
These days Hart's thinking is very meaty and refreshingly contrarian, especially in a Democratic Party that is so intellectually and strategically timid.
Hart's two "big issues" are more Republican than Democrat.
Number one, Hart thinks America isn't safe enough. He says the state of homeland security is a "scandal." This is the issue that put Hart back on the sound-byte plane. During the Clinton administration, Hart and former Senator Warren Rudman, R-N.H., co-authored a report that dramatically documented America's vulnerability to terrorism and called for a cabinet agency devoted to just that. Nobody paid much attention, until September 11, 2001.
Number two, Hart believes the American economy is living beyond its means, piling up so much foreign debt, consumer debt and national debt that that the capital investment needed to keep the economy growing in the long-term isn't possible. He wants to shift to a tax system that taxes consumption, not income. Democrats normally don't like this approach because poor people need to consume a much higher slice of their incomes than rich people.
These sound like Republican planks, but Hart thinks President Bush is oblivious to them.
Hart was a critic of war and he remains unapologetic. He thinks Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense has committed the U.S. to a unilateralist, go-it-alone foreign policy that is wholly inappropriate for a world increasingly populated by well-armed countries and ethnic-cultural populations (Muslim fundamentalists, for example). And he thinks the Democrats were caught flat-footed and have been rolled by Rummy.
Similarly, Hart believes the Bush administration has a big, ambitious domestic agenda that the Democrats are equally clueless about. Bush's policies, Hart argues, aim to "dismantle everything from the New Deal to the Great Society." Privatizing Social Security is part of it, but the main scheme is to rack up so much debt and deficit that social spending is impossible for years to come.
All of this takes Hart neatly back to his last political moment in the sun – 1984.
In Ronald Reagan's first term, a scaredy-cat Democratic Party rolled over as Reagan cut taxes, poured money into the military and created deficits that his budget director said were a "Trojan Horse" for radical reductions to domestic programs. Sound familiar? Ronald Reagan was immensely popular in his first term and the Democrats were having an identity crisis. Sound familiar?
Hart says of President Bush, "He shares with President Reagan a simple, if not simplistic, view of the world that serves him well."
So why is Hart again itching to take on a popular incumbent with a simple, easily communicated platform and a well-oiled political machine? It makes him seem even more a Don Quixote.
Hart was the campaign manager for George McGovern's quixotic 1972 campaign. The epilogue to his memoir of that campaign, "Right from the Start," said, "The Democratic Party, under penalty of irrelevance and extinction, must bring forward a new generation of thinkers who are in touch with the real world … "
That hasn't happened. Hart says he doesn't know why.
Bill Clinton did not bring forth this new generation of Democratic ideas. "He left no legacy," Hart said. "I've known him for 30 years. He's a tactician."
On the contrary, Hart says that big, creative thinking about American politics for the past 20 years has been dominated by the healthy competition on the Right between neo-conservatives, Christian conservatives and Gingrichians.
Hart's 1984 run came at a moment that had similar promise for Democrats. A radical Left still sparred with the labor union-New Deal Democratic mainstream, while Hart and his fellow neo-liberals tried to forge a radical center by focusing on such un-Democratic themes as military reform, technology and economic growth. That was the last intellectual high point for the party.
So I'm hoping that Gary Hart might stick around for the real debates in – next January.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer