Rothenberg: Democrats Still Searching for a Boogeyman

Posted May 28, 2003 at 10:28am

A little more than a week ago, seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates paraded before EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women running for office, to make their case to an influential party constituency.

And while they each took a different approach in offering himself or herself to the onlookers, a number of them focused their wrath on a man who has become the poster child for Democratic critics of the Bush administration: Attorney General John Ashcroft.

[IMGCAP(1)] Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), one of the Democratic frontrunners, promised that when he becomes president, Americans won’t have to worry about someone like Ashcroft “trampling” their rights. Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) was even sharper in his choice of words, calling for action because we “can’t allow John Ashcroft to take away our freedom, our liberties in the name of fighting a war.”

Indeed, throughout the early stages of this race, every Democratic hopeful, I’m sure, has uttered the words “John Ashcroft” in the same tones they would use to describe a case of SARS.

The problem for Kerry, Edwards, Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) or any of the other Democrats is that their anti-Ashcroft message has very limited appeal. It resonates with two groups — conservatives who are worried about bigger government and liberals for whom civil rights and the American Civil Liberties Union are sacrosanct.

Conservatives won’t support the eventual Democratic candidate against Bush no matter who that might be, and liberal ACLU types, who strongly oppose Bush’s views on abortion and affirmative action, as well as his selections for the federal judiciary, will automatically back the Democratic nominee.

A mid-April survey of 1,010 adults conducted by the Harris Poll found 57 percent of Americans rated Ashcroft’s job performance as “good” or “excellent.” While those numbers were not as strong as those earned by Secretary of State Colin Powell or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, they don’t suggest that Ashcroft could be used by Democrats as a lightning rod for fomenting dissatisfaction with Bush and his presidency in a general election.

Parties always look for a figure to skewer in the hope of demonizing a president or a political party. Sometimes it works, as it did in 1980 when the Republicans used an actor to play then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) in advertising intended to convince voters it was “time for a change” after almost 30 years of Democratic control of Congress.

Democrats also had some success using an anti-Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) message after the 1994 GOP landslide to mobilize Democrats and moderates in 1996, an off-year election when base turnout is more critical simply because overall turnout falls from its levels in presidential years.

But 2004 is a presidential year, and if Democrats turn out it will ultimately be to defeat Bush, not his attorney general.

Whatever Ashcroft’s strengths and weaknesses, he will be a marginal player in next year’s presidential race, even with the alleged perils posed by the Patriot Act and government snooping aimed at preventing terrorism.

In fact, the Democratic Party’s preoccupation with the threat posed by the attorney general seems to be more a sign of its difficulties than of the party’s opportunities next year. The more they try to make the 2004 presidential election a referendum on Ashcroft, the less they have succeeded in making it a referendum on Bush and the economy.

Democratic presidential hopefuls from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) on the left to Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) on the right need to keep their eye on Bush’s performance, not on Ashcroft, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — whom they once tried, unsuccessfully, to demonize — or Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

The Democrats’ problem remains what it has been since Sept. 11, 2001 — the president’s appealing style combined with the re-emergence of foreign policy has made it difficult for them to use the weak economy as effectively as history suggests they should be able to. Beating up on the attorney general may make Democrats feel good, but it won’t take them very far to their goal of winning the White House.

At the end of the day, Democrats don’t have to convince voters that Bush is an evil man or a threat to basic American liberties. They must convince key voters that the president is not competent to lead an economic resurgence. And right now, we still don’t know whether they will be able to do that.