Politics & Policy

A Real Elimination Game

Narrowing down the Dem presidential field.

I already miss The Bachelorette.

Wednesday nights just won’t be the same without Trista Rehn’s haunting eyes, or the haunted look on her face when she stepped into the squalor of that Manhattan studio apartment. I suppose we now have to relinquish the 9:00 P.M. slot back to President Bartlett and politically correctly solving the world’s problems in under 60 minutes.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be goodbye yet. If Trista’s game, there’s a public service she can perform on her country’s behalf. Having skillfully disposed of 24 able-bodied men in her search of Mr. Right, why not entrust the lovely Ms. Rehn with assessing the seven (and counting) Democrats in search of a long-term relationship with voters in November 2004?

Presidential politics, Bachelorette-style, works well from a timing perspective.

Have Trista eliminate one Democrat a week, beginning in mid-January, and we’ll have a winner by mid-to-late March. That’s pretty much how it will play out, anyway, if we stick to the current process that’s dominated by early money and early momentum. It’s hardball politics, but the game tends to be well over long before baseball’s Opening Day. Dream all you want about the nominating process going into extra innings and a brokered convention. It won’t. Why not have a little fun with it?

Plus, there’s the upside of removing the hopefuls from the tired backroads of the initial primary states — anything to keep candidates from pandering their way through Iowa, South Carolina and other assorted early stops in the road to the White House. Personally, I’d rather see John Kerry letting his hair down in Las Vegas, if such a thing is mechanically feasible, than flipping pancakes in New Hampshire.

Of course, there’s one big problem with the Trista scenario: Eventually, she’d have to choose a winner. And right now, it’s hard to see how any of the Democrats’ presidential contenders comes across as the marrying type, much less dashing enough to compel Americans to dump their current “significant other” in the Oval Office.

And leads us to the real challenge facing the party out of power. It’s not about scoring with The Bachelorette. Nor is it that any of these contenders is anything close to an “American Idol.”

The answer to what ails Democrats lies in the question posed by the title of ABC’s newest “reality” offering: Are You Hot: The Search for America’s Sexiest People. The show’s requirements: “talent, personality, and strategy were not required, just physical beauty and innate sexiness.” Reverse those traits and you have the secret to success in presidential politics: it takes skills and cunning.

Unfortunately for Democrats, none of their hopefuls is “hot” or “sexy” — not in the political sense, at least. The criticism of the Bush administration is legion. However, the new ideas are scarce. The evidence is scant that anyone in the current field intends to move the party off of a negative, defeatist message.

Ironically, the seven-or-so candidates looking to be the next Bill Clinton seemingly have forgotten what it took for the former president to end the Republicans’ lock on the White House. Yes, Clinton offered “vigor”, to borrow a word from John F. Kennedy. However, he was also a candidate of ideas (education reform, volunteerism, “ending welfare as we know it”). To his credit, Clinton had the political smarts to understand that (George H. W.) Bush-bashing wasn’t sufficient to get elected. It also required Clinton the Democratic stereotype of too weak, too pessimistic, and too out of the mainstream.

Now that Trista is off the air (that is, until she appears on Hollywood Squares or some other b-list fare), the 2004 hopefuls would do well to use that free time to read the last edition of Blueprint Magazine, a publication of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. It includes the following free campaign advice from DLC insiders Al From and Bruce Reed, who were integral in Clinton’s White House ascent: “The only sane reason to run for president is a burning desire to do a lot with the office. If you have a clear idea where you want to take the country, you can overcome any political odds. If you don’t, you won’t win, and you wouldn’t get far in the job even if you did.”

They add: “Now more than ever, the one reason to seek the presidency, and the only way to win it, is to unite people behind a cause that is larger than your candidacy.”

Remember that approach, and one of these Democratic “bachelors” might manage to avoid elimination next spring.

— Bill Whalen is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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