This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
I don't think the capture of Saddam Hussein was even close to the worst news the Democrats got this week. Actually, I think it's a big news story, but a nano-issue in the campaign.
There is a long list of bad tidings and the top items would be the retirement of Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana and the airing of an attack ad on Howard Dean by a creepy mystery group calling itself Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive values. These represent this week's incarnations of two powerful currents drowning the Democrats -- losing the South and cannibalism.
But I think they're just a sample from a big load of coal in the Democratic stocking this Christmas, so let's start unwrapping:
Lump I: John Breaux. The Cajun dealmaker is one of five Southern Senators to split this year, joining John Edwards, Ernest Hollings, Bob Graham and Zell Miller. All of these Senators are well known names, influential and almost sure bets for reelection. All would have helped any Democratic ticket in states that Bush carried in 2000 (if you count Florida, and technically you have to).
The wide angle on this is a point George Will made recently with his customary panache: "In the last nine presidential elections (1968-2000), the 11 states of the Confederacy, plus Kentucky and Oklahoma, have awarded 1,385 electoral votes. Democratic candidates have won just 270 (20 percent) of them." For the Democrats, that's profound Southern discomfort. It continues to get worse. And Howard Dean is an unlikely candidate to reverse the Republican march.
Lump II: Sleazy Dem-On-Dem Ads. The worst offender, the anti-Dean ad that ran in South Carolina and New Hampshire, is worthy of the Willie Horton Award. What's stunning is that it's organized by Democrats, albeit cowardly, anonymous Democrats. People with ties to Gephardt and Kerry seem to be involved with the cabal that bought the ad, which intones, "Americans want a president who can face the dangers ahead. But Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience. And Howard just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy."
With Democrats like that, who needs Republicans?
Lump III: Cannibalism. The back of the pack used Saddam's capture to bludgeon the front-runner. "I fear that the American people will wonder if they will be safer with him as president," Lieberman said of Dean. John Kerry said Dean doesn't "have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president." Ouch, and pass the meat tenderizer.
Such sound bites make post-capture critiques of Dean' s foreign policy by the Wall Street Journal editorial page and conservative columnist David Brooks seem lily-livered. If Dean gets the nomination, his primary opponents will have created a record that the Bushies will drool over. I can hear the ad now, "Even fellow Democrats think America wouldn't be safe with Howie Dean in charge."
Healthy competition and biting criticism is dandy. But pointing to the frontrunner in your own party -- a man who has clearly inspired a huge chunk of the potential Democratic electorate -- and saying he is dangerous is, well, cannibalism. It's what Johnson did to Goldwater, but they weren't on the same team. If someone other than Dean gets the nomination, Deanites will hold grudges, I suspect.
Powerbrokers and party elders should step in and break up this brawl. But in the modern party system, there aren't powerbrokers and party elders.
Lump IV: Primaries hurt. Demo-cannibalism is doubly dangerous in the face of one of the iron laws of modern elections: incumbent presidents unopposed in the primaries go on to win the general; opposed incumbents lose.
Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton won, easily. Ford (vs. Reagan), Carter (vs. Kennedy, and Bush (vs. Buchanan and Perot) lost their generals.
Bush looks pretty unopposed to me.
Lump V: Medicare. Whatever you think of the Medicare bill President Bush signed into law, it's an issue the Democrats gave away. They have had every opportunity in the world to get prescription drugs covered, a huge priority for a base constituency for over a decade. On this one, it was Democratic statecraft that failed, not strategy.
Lump VI: California. If you look at the map, California is the home base for the Democrats: 55 electoral votes in a state Al Gore carried with 53 percent.
But times are hard now. Gray Davis turned death black. Arnold could easily have '04 coat tails. In San Francisco, the establishment Democratic candidate for mayor was almost gutted by a Green.
Lump VII: 8.2 and 10,000. That's 8.2 percent as in the fastest quarterly economic growth since in 1984 and 10,000 as in the mark the Dow Jones Industrial Average just crossed.
Democrats may dance for dark clouds but it looks like the sun is coming out. It wouldn't surprise to see Bush-Cheney '04 run "It's Morning in America" ads (gag me, yes; surprise me, no).
Many of the wounds hobbling the Democrats now are self-inflicted. For ages, the great Republican advantage in elections has been simply that they are running against Democrats.
But this year, Republican strategists would be especially wise to recall Napoleon's adage, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
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By Dick Meyer
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