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Bush's Last Laugh

In the recent history of presidential campaigning, April is the time when hope springs eternal. When every Democratic general election candidate--Michael Dukakis! John Kerry!--looks like he might have the stuff to pull off a landslide. It is the time to heal from the knocks and bruises suffered during the primary season. You raise money, you begin building a case for the fall, you vet vice presidential candidates, you start to knock around your opponent, and you still have time to head to Florida to work on your tan.

That's what makes the road to the Denver convention so damn frustrating. John McCain is heir to a presidency whose accomplishments now include an economy careening toward a deep recession; on issue after issue, public opinion mirrors the Democrats' policies. This should be the one election that even the party of Dukakis couldn't screw up.

Yet here we are in April, and the situation for Democrats verges on the apocalyptic. Where it once looked like Bill Clinton and Al Gore had helped purge the party of the lame identity politics that had ruined Democratic candidates for a generation, discussions of race and gender have returned with a vengeance. Supporters of Clinton and Obama compete to prove who is the bigger victim--opponents are casually tarred as sexist or racist. And, as soon as the Democrats began acting like it was 1984, that bad omen, Geraldine Ferraro, returned, as if on cue.

There are many reasons to believe that this primary season will end in tears for Democrats. On page 17, Noam Scheiber catalogues several grim scenarios. Democrats are spending millions of dollars bludgeoning one another in ways that can't help but abet McCain--while McCain does a neat job of consolidating his base and building goodwill with the rest of the electorate.

But the biggest problem isn't what's being said by the candidates; it's what's not being said. Heading into a general election, candidates need narratives that justify their claim on the White House. Bill Clinton understood this in 1992. By the time he strode to the dais at the convention in Madison Square Garden, he had spent months fine-tuning his rationale for running and, importantly, formulating compelling language about the economic plight of the country and his broad approach for reversing it.

In the current campaign, neither candidate has come close to approaching his level of clarity, especially when it comes to the issue that offers Democrats the simplest path to the presidency: the economy. They have failed to articulate a critique of the wild Bush-era deregulation that has allowed the greed of banks to run amok. When it comes to globalization, they are at such a loss to describe (let alone combat) the fallout from systemic changes that they resort to tired, dishonest trashing of NAFTA (see "Trade Secrets," page 10).

In part, this is a product of the campaign and the particular candidates. They basically agree about the state of the world, so when they disagree, even over relatively picayune matters, they do so loudly and angrily. They fall prey to the narcissism of small differences. And, in the course of their squabbling, they fail to make the case for good policies.

Take the debate over health care. Both candidates believe in universal health care, yet they are beating the hell out of each other over relatively minor differences. The conversation is a visceral wonkfest. But what gets lost in this storm of details is the broader case for reform. There is, of course, a time for this kind of debate, but that time was much earlier in the season.

When Obama or Clinton eventually claims this nomination--and it increasingly looks like that won't happen until June--he or she will have only a short time to formulate general-election narratives; the period for testing arguments and laying groundwork will be impossibly compressed. And that compression will prove especially problematic on issues, such as national security, on which Democrats must tack back to the center. When a candidate prepares policies and rhetoric for the fall, it's clearly better to do it in subtle, little nibbles rather than grotesquely large bites. But, with Clinton and Obama fighting for the allegiance of liberal-minded primary voters, they won't make these important adjustments for months.

All of which is to say that it's about time for the Democratic Party to panic. If it wants to win this election, it needs this race to end as soon as possible. Every day spent on the primaries represents an opportunity cost and diminishes the chances for ultimate victory.