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That Sinking Feeling

Reviewed by Kevin Phillips
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page BW04

YOU HAVE THE POWER

How to Take Back Our Country and

Restore Democracy in America


Howard Dean (Shaun Best -- Reuters)

By Howard Dean with Judith Warner

Simon & Schuster. 195 pp. $19.95

WHAT WE'VE LOST •

By Graydon Carter. Farrar Straus Giroux. 340 pp. $25

In the wake of Sen. John Kerry's August and early September nosedive, the title of a likely bestseller comes to mind: "Losers: Why Feckless Democrats Seem Unable To Win The Presidency." Some publishing house should have commissioned it.

Let me stipulate: November 2 is still six weeks away, and the wobbly Democratic donkey may still learn how to kick, but one wonders. The most successful anti-Bush tomes of 2004 were written (such as former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke's Against All Enemies) or informationally enabled (such as The Price of Loyalty, by Ron Suskind in collaboration with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill) by people with Republican roots. By Labor Day, the phrase "top-flight Washington Democratic strategist" was on its way to becoming a new oxymoron.

Two intriguing new books elucidate the party's conundrum. The first -- You Have the Power by Howard Dean, the ex-Vermont governor who briefly led the Democratic presidential field last winter -- endorses Kerry but basically argues that party renewal is up to the folks at the grass roots. "The Democratic Party, just like the Republicans," he laments, "emerged from the 1990s pretty much the captive of big-money interests." The upshot? "George Bush is an inept president and the Democrats haven't stood up to him." It's a fair summary of 2004 presidential politics, but as we will see, Dean's examination doesn't end there.

For his part, Graydon Carter, the editor of the New York-based magazine Vanity Fair, calls his book What We've Lost, adding on the cover How the Bush Administration Has Curtailed Our Freedoms, Mortgaged Our Economy, Ravaged Our Environment, and Damaged Our Standing in the World. Actually, there's more sophisticated documentation inside than the glib capsule might suggest, not least in the first two chapters probing "The President's Wars" and "The Military."

The former, beyond the now-familiar case that the misleadingly launched war against Iraq undercut the higher-priority fight against al Qaeda terrorism, culminates with a rare 13-page listing -- by name, rank and age -- of the Iraq war dead of 11 coalition nations, albeit mostly American. But these names add weight as Carter's chapter on the military locks in on a particularly blatant White House hypocrisy: Despite President Bush's relentless military photo-ops and repeated public promises to provide troops in Iraq with every equipment and then some, the reality has been otherwise.

The list is repulsive, especially in light of the simultaneous war profiteering by contractors like Vice President Cheney's old company, Halliburton. The largely unarmored Humvees used on patrol were such deathtraps that civic groups in hometowns like Mobile, Ala., arranged special steel plating for their National Guard unit's vehicles. U.S. companies producing body armor, in turn, were deluged with calls from parents trying to buy vests and plate for their ill-equipped sons and daughters in khaki. In 2003, only weeks before the Iraq war started, the Defense Department admitted that it could not certify that U.S. troops sent there had been provided with the minimum level of chemical and biological warfare protection equipment that the Pentagon itself required.

Additional shabby details show how the Bush administration sought to charge some returning troops a first-ever $250 fee to enroll in the Veterans Administration medical plan; to block expanded health care for returning reservists and National Guard members; to restrict officials of the Disabled American Veterans organization from visiting soldiers in the hospital; and to cut the extra $250 per month received by the families of combat soldiers to $100, calling the larger outlay "wasteful and unnecessary." Besides the more than 1,000 military U.S. dead, the White House is also trying to avoid discussing the nearly 7,000 wounded, quite a few of whom have lost single or multiple limbs in attacks and explosions. Many families even face awful decisions about turning off life-support systems. The entertainer Cher, talking on C-SPAN, described a visit to Washington's Walter Reed Hospital: "I wonder why Cheney, Wolfowitz, Bremer, the president -- why aren't they taking pictures with all these guys? . . . Talking about the dead and the wounded, that's two different things. But these wounded are so devastatingly wounded. . . . It's unbelievable."

Carter's other chapters -- on the economy, the environment, the judiciary, Bush's State of the Union addresses (which the author suggests may break the U.S. Criminal Code's bar on fraudulent official statements) and more -- teem with information, but the greatest punch comes up front. Revealingly, Howard Dean -- the one major Democratic contender to oppose the war in Iraq -- underscores the same point. Families with a chief breadwinner in Iraq "were stunned when the Bush administration, despite its constant platitudes in support of the troops, tried to cut off the soldiers' hazardous-duty pay by declaring the Iraq conflict 'over'. . . . And they wondered where our government's loyalty was to its troops and to our veterans who were having their health-care benefits slashed while the president flew to Baghdad for a turkey dinner with the troops."

Television advertising able to slam home these abuses and failures could start to shift the electoral "patriotism" equation. But it has taken a shamefully long transition period for the establishment Democrats in Washington to attack the mistaken policy aspects of a war that most of them more or less supported -- in Kerry's case (at least until he changed his mind on Labor Day), with some of the most fumbling phraseology heard in modern American politics. Which brings us back to Dean's refreshing literary candor in explaining the almost inexplicable: how the Democrats of 2004 became such a feckless party that they failed to broadly and massively attack even so vulnerable a president as Bush.

The essence of Dean's analysis is simple. His presidential campaign broke through suddenly in 2003, he writes, because so many voters had become so hungry for straight talk. The gutlessness of congressional Democrats, who provided critical votes for Bush's programs, had worn down and disillusioned the party's rank and file. "The Democratic Party has for some time failed to live up to its mission of being a party for ordinary people," Dean writes. "The fatal combination of Republican cravenness and Democratic cowardice wasn't having an awful effect solely on the U.S. economy. . . . Politics as usual was smothering the American will to believe."

Donor-driven Democrats forgot their constituency, pretending to a false "centrism." But to Dean, "being a centrist means balancing budgets, not abandoning American working people and the middle class." Dean is careful not to criticize individuals. But over the last two decades, unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidates like Michael Dukakis and Al Gore have developed a kind of intermittent rhetorical facade for their well-funded campaigns, a populist-lite phraseology or middle-class pseudo-empathy -- invocations of "two Americas" or the "middle-class squeeze" -- that avoids the kind of serious documentation, repeated emphasis, detailed analysis and comprehensive remedies required to build for reform. Corporate and big-dollar donors don't mind as long as the pitches remain soft and occasional. This year's Kerry campaign seems to be following suit, attacking Bush with little more than spitballs, and voters are apparently underwhelmed.

As a longtime Bush critic with Republican antecedents, I believe that Dean is basically correct in his perceptions and in his conclusion that "when you trade your values for the hope of winning, you end up losing and having no values -- so you keep losing." The big questions for the next six weeks are whether the Democrats have the will and smarts to change -- and if so, whether they also have enough time. •

Kevin Phillips's most recent book is "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush."


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