The Next President

WHILE NEWS MEDIA are saturated with field reports from Iraq and Seattle war protesters fume over unprovoked attacks from police, the battle that should concern everyone the most is taking place away from the headlines.

Welcome to the 2004 presidential race. It'll be over—except for the voting, of course—before 2004 even begins. For the long-term freedom, health, prosperity, and security of Americans—and the world's other 6 billion people and all its other species, too—there is no more critical task in the coming months than to oust George W. Bush and the lunatics surrounding him in November 2004.

In a genuine democracy, of course, that would happen in November 2004 as a function of votes cast. But American democracy comes with a very large asterisk attached—or, more accurately, a dollar sign. The stakes involved in the presidency and the enormous amount of money required for even a serious campaign have steadily pushed the nomination process earlier in the past 25 years.

In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush essentially had their parties' nominations sewn up before a single primary vote was cast. That left Americans with a distinctly unappetizing choice between two men who appeared far more alike than different. Into that lethargic campaign, Bush poured so much corporate money that he turned down federal matching funds—they'd have crimped his style. And we know what happened then.

This time, with the advantages of incumbency and a four-year track record of manna for the extremely wealthy, Bush may well double his record 2000 total.

It will take a Democratic candidate with exceptional fund-raising skills and maximum time to even have a shot at unseating him. While in theory it shouldn't matter whether the most dangerous electoral incumbent in the history of the world has a staggering money advantage, in practice, it does. All that money buys a whole lot of image.

As we've just seen, a relentless message from the White House can convince people of even the most preposterous things. The sky is purple. Grass is orange. Iraq launched 9/11. George W. Bush should be re-elected.

Into this buzz saw will step almost certainly one of the nine already declared Democratic primary candidates: Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean (both in Seattle last weekend), John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, Bob Graham, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley-Braun, and Dennis Kucinich.

I am not a party loyalist. I also have a track record of being fiercely critical of "lesser of two evils" voting. And I tend to think local community building matters more than electoral politics. Regardless, this one matters a lot, and any one of these nine would be vastly better than Dubya. It's far more important that one of them wins than that they be the best of the bunch in terms of how much better they'd be politically.

So let's start clearing the decks. Kucinich is one of the most ethical and courageous individuals in American politics today. He's also completely unelectable as president. The activist energy now going into his campaign is energy that could be used to promote someone who can win. Likewise, Sharpton, while not the cartoon many people seem to think, is also a moot point, as are Moseley-Braun (too bad) and Graham (thank goodness).

MOST OF the buzz right now is around Dean, an independent-leaning former Vermont governor who is almost the prototype Seattle Democrat—friendly to business, liberal on social issues and foreign policy, with a nice pro-gun twist for the hinterland. He's moved from the electoral hinterlands to become a serious candidate by dint of his early willingness to criticize Bush's war when, remarkably, few other Democrats would (he's since backed off a bit). Kerry, the most liberal of the other front-runners now that Gephardt has recast himself as a moderate, has also been making some vaguely critical noises.

Kerry has one thing Dean doesn't: money (and established networks for getting more of it). By March 31, Kerry had already collected $7 million, putting him alongside Edwards (a glib, Clinton-style Southerner) as the money front-runners. Gephardt was third at that point with only half that total—$3.6 million. Much could still change. Lieberman's campaign has been sagging among Democrats, but his name recognition and money-friendly conservatism mean he can't be dismissed. Wild cards like Gen. Wesley Clark (the Democrats' answer to Colin Powell) may still announce. But the field won't be open long. This is now how America chooses its presidents—through money, media, polling, and more money. Actual voters are only invited at the very end.

In less than 19 months, Americans will get their only serious opportunity to prevent George W. Bush from running this country for eight years. We'd better unite behind someone else soon and get busy. Our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will thank us.

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