Keep Your Eyes On the Prize

"Who are you with?" asks a Democratic activist.

"I like Dean."

"He doesn't have a snowball's chance," says another. "If we put up an anti-war candidate, we're dead. Kerry's the man."

"Kerry doesn't connect with people," says a third. "Besides, we need a southerner. I'm for Edwards."

"Edwards doesn't have enough experience," says another activist. "Besides, we need a true Dem that labor can get behind. That's Gephardt."

"You nuts?" says someone else. "He's the oldest of old Democrats. We need a centrist. That's Lieberman."

"Baloney," another says. "He's Republican Lite. We need a populist like Kucinich or Moseley Braun."

"You're all wrong. We need a steady hand. Bob Graham."

"You're out of your mind."

"Screw you."

"Go to hell."

"Your mother's a Republican."

Yearning for a savior to deliver them from the wilderness, Democratic activists are tempted to spend the next eight or nine months making huge emotional and financial investments in one candidate or another. The predictable result is cognitive dissonance: The favored candidate's strengths will be magnified all out of proportion while the weaknesses of primary rivals will be wildly exaggerated. Within a few months, opposing camps will barely be able to hide their contempt for one another.

Meanwhile, issue activists are likely to fixate on the specific causes that animate them -- health care, the environment, abortion, women, education, labor, whatever -- to the exclusion of everything else. As the primaries loom, they'll grow more insistent that each candidate pledges to make their issue his or her highest priority. They'll send fundraising letters and create media events designed to maximize their pressure, and promise to endorse and work for the candidate who's "best" for them.

And the Democratic Party is apt to go through its quadrennial display of public soul-searching about whether to move to the center to pick up swing voters or back to its base to ignite the passions of party regulars. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) will issue caustic press releases criticizing candidates too closely aligned with organized labor or insufficiently enthusiastic about tax cuts and capital formation. The AFL-CIO will chastise the DLC for its right-wing partisanship. The Greens will fulminate about the Democrats' lack of progressive ideals.

Perhaps such self-indulgent fracturing is inevitable in a party as raucous and undisciplined as the Democrats. But I hope not. George W. Bush and his Karl Rove brain would like nothing better than for Democrats to clobber one another publicly for the next nine months and go into the general election next spring tired, bruised and badly fragmented.

Democrats must resist the temptation. The stakes are simply too high. America cannot afford a second term for W.

Republicans won the electoral vote last time around not because they had more money or political smarts but because they outdisciplined the Dems. This despite the fact that Republicans lacked the disciplining force of the White House. Instead, GOP oligarchs cracked the whip. They persuaded evangelical Christians to mute their anti-abortion, anti-gay positions. They got southern whites to keep their racial bigotry in check. They made sure the big-business wing of the GOP didn't threaten the small-business, entrepreneurial wing. Early on they coalesced around a single candidate. When maverick John McCain threatened to undo the plan, he was muscled offstage. Candidate Bush stuck to the script handed him by his handlers, who had polled and focus-grouped every word and phrase.

Democrats fell apart even though they held the White House and Al Gore was the heir apparent. Sniping was audible long before the convention. The DLC attacked Gore from the right; Ralph Nader and the Greens from the left. Single-issue groups hammered him with their pet themes. A cacophony of political advice came from every corner of the Democratic Party. Gore's message changed almost as quickly as his wardrobe.

I'm not suggesting that Democrats attempt to transform themselves into as cynically disciplined a machine as the Republicans. Democracy thrives on debate. But Democrats don't have a prayer unless they keep their eyes on the prize and avoid petty, internecine warfare.

So here's my advice to activists: Don't get so emotionally invested in any particular primary candidate that you lose the psychological capacity to be enthusiastic about whomever emerges as the Democratic candidate nine months from now. Remember, the overriding goal is to unseat W.

When you hear a Democratic primary candidate criticize or demean a primary opponent, don't just sit there: Make a phone call and send a letter or an e-mail to that candidate expressing outrage.

Most importantly, don't sink too much of your time, energy and money into primary fights. Remember that the real fight begins next spring. It will take everything you have.

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