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Candidates Still Need to Define Themselves

By Steven Stark

Though the press focuses on organization, tactics, and fundraising, campaigns are won by unifying ideas. And, because no candidate in either party has yet to articulate the kind of broad theme that can galvanize an electorate, this year's race remains undefined.

Having "ideas" does not mean outlining a detailed set of policy prescriptions. It means presenting an expansive and memorable argument that resonates with voters. In 1960, John F. Kennedy proposed to "get the country moving again," and in the 1980s Ronald Reagan announced it was "morning in America."

In each case, voters knew exactly what was meant, just as they understood, in 1976, that when outsider Jimmy Carter promised "I'll never lie to you," he was offering a complete break from the disillusioning era of Vietnam and Watergate. Even George Bush's 1988 tag line, "Read my lips -- no new taxes," was shorthand for the more prosaic "Stay the course."

In the current presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has come closest to articulating a potentially defining theme -- essentially, "Back to the future, this time with a woman." Admittedly, voters would rather focus on the future, not the past, but there are enough Clinton enthusiasts and people who want a female president that her campaign has at least established an agenda around which supporters can rally. Now it behooves the other candidates to do the same.

So far, the rest of the major Democrats haven't. John Edwards toyed with focusing on his electability. But that's a tactical argument that doesn't inspire voters -- and a weak distinction given that nearly every Democrat is currently running ahead of every Republican. Next he tried to become the liberal in the field (I oppose the war the most, etc.), but the truth is that all the major Democratic contenders take a similar approach to the issues. The differences are ones of style and personality.

Recently, Edwards has presented himself as a "common man for the common people." That's an idea that could have legs, as long as Edwards is willing to go on the attack and make the populist argument that Clinton and Barack Obama are upper-class elitists who don't understand the travails of ordinary folk. It's not an easy argument to sell, but as a trial lawyer, Edwards undoubtedly has had harder ones.

Obama's failure to articulate a broad theme has been puzzling, since he came into the campaign as the candidate who had done precisely that in his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address, when he talked about the need for one America. Moreover, he has a natural asset -- his age -- that seems a perfect lead-in to a discussion of the need for new politics in a new era -- along the lines of JFK's first congressional campaign slogan, "A New Generation Offers a Leader."

But instead of displaying the visionary tone found in his books and his 2004 convention speech, Obama has often come across like a lawyer presenting an oral argument, or -- even worse -- a law student trying to impress his professors with how much he really knows. (Question: how many law professors are in Obama's inner circle? He should stop talking to them so much.) The result has been that he's abdicated his natural advantage to Clinton. If that continues into next January, Obama won't be the nominee.

All the GOP candidates have faced a similar definitional problem, which is why that race is still wide open. In 1988, Michael Dukakis promised that he would do for America what he did for Massachusetts. Substitute New York City for Massachusetts and you essentially have the 2008 Giuliani campaign to date.

The problem there is that a national Massachusetts was a lot more appealing to Democratic primary voters 20 years ago than a national New York City is to GOP voters centered in the heartland and the South today. Thus, Giuliani faces a culture clash almost wherever he goes -- not an easy path to victory. He'd be better off also accentuating the tough-guy-prosecutor part of his résumé and promising to go after terrorists the way he went after Wall Street crooks and street crime. Interestingly, in the past week, he's begun to sort of do that -- only his "enemy" hasn't just been Al Qaeda but the New York Times (there's New York again) and Clinton. It's a thought-provoking juxtaposition.

Mitt Romney is a nice, wealthy, respectable candidate who has presented absolutely no overriding themes -- which is why, sooner or later, his campaign will implode if he doesn't shift gears fast. He has the business record to offer himself to the nation as a kind of "national CEO" -- which might be enormously alluring, à la Lee Iacocca or even Wendell Willkie. But it's getting very late to go down that path.

Fred Thompson has just announced, so it remains to be seen what his themes (if he has any) will be. But the early signs aren't promising. Dispensing homilies and playing Arthur Branch on TV do not a campaign make. And throughout his career, Thompson has never shown the slightest inclination to offer a set of overriding themes with wide appeal. Worse, he's put himself in the position of constantly being called "the new Reagan," which could well do to him what being called "the next JFK" did to a generation of Democratic politicians. It destroyed them all because, alas, there was only one JFK and one Reagan.

Which leaves John McCain. In 2000, his campaign resonated because he seemed to offer a "third way" -- a set of independent policies that would appeal to the "radical middle" turned off by the partisanship of both major parties.

As this campaign began, a more partisan McCain initially found that path closed to him, and his campaign virtually collapsed. But in recent weeks, he's found his voice again as a kind of 21st-century Harry Truman -- an aspirant who is, in fact, so senior and seasoned that he doesn't care what the conventional politicians and press think anymore. "My only allegiance is to the truth and to you," might be his slogan. Could it work? In the ideas vacuum of the current GOP race, it actually could.

Boston Phoenix


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