Get Happy!

Not many commentators have been as insistent as I have that the Democrats stop letting themselves get kicked around and learn to play hardball the way the right plays it, an argument I've made in this magazine [see "Dems' Fightin' Words," TAP, Aug. 26, 2002] and elsewhere. And so every time a Robert Byrd bashes President Bush for his flyboy routine, or a Terry McAuliffe lays into the GOP for politicizing September 11 with the timing of its convention, I always think that, whatever the short-term gain or loss (or neither, if, as is most often the case, no one paid much attention), in the long run it's still a good thing. The attack muscle is one the Democrats need to use lest it atrophy. If they can exercise it, one of these days a punch will land, and Karl Rove will finally be forced to play a little defense.

But it's important to remember something else as we size up the Democratic presidential contenders and think about 2004: Attacks don't usually win presidential elections. In fact, criticism isn't even the main ingredient in the stew.

Optimism is.

And optimism of a particular sort. I don't mean optimism about the candidate's odds of carrying Michigan, or about the chance to put a liberal or two on the Supreme Court. Those are forms of optimism, and they're perfectly fine; but they're political in nature, and their appeal is limited to the party faithful.

I mean something grander: optimism about what kind of nation this can be four, or 10 or 20, years from now, with a reasonably detailed road map showing how we the people are going to get there. This is an optimism that transcends the political and becomes, in its way, evangelical. And virtually every successful modern presidential candidate, from FDR to Kennedy to Reagan to Clinton to even the current occupant -- "compassionate conservatism" was a con game, but it was an optimistic one in that it led voters to believe that Bush's GOP would divest itself of its Gingrichesque malevolence -- has won on the basis of this kind of optimism.

This might seem like an obvious thing to say. But watch the scrimmages of the nine Democrats thus far and you see that maybe it isn't so obvious. Howard Dean and John Kerry have picked enough snits with each other -- Dean chiefly instigating -- that they made the front page of The New York Times, which ought to serve as a warning to cool it. And even those candidates who have largely avoided such intramural roughhousing are, so far, spending a lot more energy attacking Bush than laying out optimistic visions of where they want to take the country.

All right, no need to reach for panic buttons just yet. We're at a point in the race when the candidates are mostly trying to impress the hard-core party loyalists. This group wants to hear attacks on Bush, and of course it's right and necessary to point out the ways in which this administration's policies are benefiting the few. So it's fine to emphasize that for the time being. But only for the time being.

Optimism is especially imperative in 2004 for two reasons. First, an incumbent who most Americans, let's face it, seem to like well enough, who has won a war, whose political operation has pretty much not committed a major gaffe during his entire term so far and who will have nearly $300 million to spend (my projection -- my hunch is that those $200 million figures bouncing around the press in April were low) is not an easy target. The Bush campaign will gush optimism, and it will do it well. That won't be easy to counter.

Which brings us to the second point. The parties have their different brands of optimism, and the Republican style is an easier sell to begin with. It's based on straightforward verities that urge voters toward reflexive emotional responses: America is great, might is good, we're the white hats. The Republican brand of optimism is espoused, in other words, as a constant -- these things are true and always have been and always will be. Democratic optimism, on the other hand, is more conditional. Democratic optimism says something like, "This is what we are not quite yet, but what we have in us to become." It is based, in other words, on the nation's potential.

That's a harder sell. It takes more time. It takes more imagination. It asks of voters a more critical engagement. So let the Democratic candidates concentrate on Bush bashing for a while. But somewhere in the basements of their campaign laboratories, they'd better be figuring out a way to tell Americans a hopeful story about the future. If they can't, we'll wake up after election day with great reason to be pessimistic.