In the previous two presidential election campaigns, Al Gore and John Kerry, starched at the collar to begin with, ran campaigns prudent to the point of pussyfooting. Both Democrats attempted to court the corporate interests that helped bring Bill Clinton success. Meanwhile, those who had sought to take it away, the religious right, were given a wide berth.
By way of post mortems, alternative media and progressives have spent the years since heaping abuse and scorn on the Democrats for the timid campaigns they ran. Give the public some credit, went the refrain. Hew to the Democrat ideals which saw this country through a Depression and a world war. If you truly respect the Republicans, instead of appeasing them, emulate their rock-ribbed conviction.
We haven't heard much talk like this lately, have we?
The current presidential campaign cycle kicked off with the likes of Dennis Kucinich, an unreconstructed leftist, and John Edwards, an advocate of the working-class. Neither of the two survivors, owing various degrees of fealty to corporate donors, is a progressive's dream. But they're genuine liberals on domestic issues, Hillary Clinton more traditionally.
Also, both favor withdrawal from Iraq, with Obama favoring abstinence over penetration in the first place. He even said, "I don't want to just end the war. . . I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place."
In other words, both of their campaigns have quieted cries that Democrats aren't doing justice to their base. This time, aside from Clinton's attacks softening up Obama for the kill by McCain, we're confronted with a challenge at least as daunting.
It's true that Democratic participation in caucuses and primaries has surpassed all expectations. But the party's leadership, long charged with lagging behind the electorate, may now find itself in the unaccustomed position of being out front of the public.
Hold on -- don't Americans seek economic reform and an end to our occupation of Iraq? At the risk of contradicting the polls, we're not so sure.
When John Edwards was running, he planted a series of truths and proposals about the economy squarely in front of Americans. Many of us turned a deaf ear. Sure, we're hurting. But don't talk to us like we're one step from welfare.
A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that, "four in ten Americans with incomes below $20,000 say they are middle class." Many of us would sooner lose our homes before we'd refer to ourselves as -- never mind lower-income -- but "working-class."
Heretofore, home ownership was a badge of the middle-class. Even without one, whether a renter or defaulter, we still have our high-definition TVs and satellite dishes. Unable to swallow our pride, we gag on it.
It's not just that we gild our own economic lily, many of us barely acknowledge the state of the economy at large. While that may be a psychological survival mechanism, you can't help but wonder if we're waiting for the soaring price of gas to "correct" itself like the market and drop back down.
Worse, even though the Republicans deserve much of the blame for the economic fix we're in, whenever they utter the words "tax cuts" many of us still go all Pavlov. In fact, we may even be poised to revert to the Republican position on everyone's sore spot, health care. For example, Clinton's program provides refundable tax credits for low-income workers and government insurance similar to Medicare. But, to evenly distribute the stresses the ill put on the system, it's also compulsory.
That's the last thing we want to hear. (Tone-deaf on the subject, Clinton actually boasts about it.) It's like begging the Republicans to pump up the volume on their charges that national health care is socialism.
Still, there's no disputing that the public wants us to leave Iraq. Umm -- remember the old Chinese food game? You know, after you crack open a fortune cookie, you append "in bed" to the end of your fortune.
Polls, especially on this question, work the same way: Our responses should come with the disclaimer "Now that you mention it" tacked on to the end. Since it's seldom covered on TV news, about the only time Iraq crosses our minds is when we're asked about it.
Besides, darned if we're not tougher than we thought. We've learned that we can handle six or seven soldiers dying a week. Heck, in a recent week 18 were killed and we didn't skip a beat. There's something about the name Petraeus, despite the general's lackluster star turn before the Senate, that has the power to cloud men's minds.
We're also nonplussed by the continuing carnage -- 40 Iraqis still die at a time in a car bombing. It may have been for the wrong reasons, we think, but at least we gave them their freedom. What they do with it is their choice.
What then are those of us oblivious to the economy or the war voting on? Those old standbys, gay marriage or abortion? Lapel pins?
Chances are that many of us may once again vote only to our comfort level, as we did with George Bush. The media assumes we're disgusted with him. But what if it's just him we're sick of, not someone like him? In other words, maybe it isn't the model that we're rejecting with 28 percent approval ratings, just the particular unit.
Speaking of the likeability quotient, John McCain's has long been inflationary. Ever see him on the Daily Show? Until John Stewart began challenging him, he was relaxed and funny.
In fact, this election threatens to replicate the previous two in yet another way. Beer-buddy McCain (Bush) will face off against either Hillary the policy wonk (Al Gore) or Obama, lately portrayed as an effete intellectual (John Kerry).
But what about the X factor that's helping propel Obama -- his charisma?
As with John F. Kennedy, also a conductor of the electrifying, charisma calls for a response beyond just enthrallment. Kennedy, of course, challenged us to do more than ask our country what it's done for us lately. Obama, too, attempts to inspire us to rebuild our country.
Americans are notorious for their aversion to public service. But even more daunting to many of us than actually acting is what charisma evokes -- the belief that our future can be brighter and that happiness can be ours.
Lloyd deMause, a leading light of the school of psychohistory, reminds us of this in his controversial, but groundbreaking book, "The Emotional Life of Nations." "That personal achievement and prosperity often makes individuals feel sinful and unworthy of their success is a commonplace observation of psychotherapy ever since Freud's first case studies of people 'ruined by success.'"
He elaborates. "Yet no one seems to have noticed that feelings of sinfulness are usually prominent in the shared emotional life of nations after long periods of peace, prosperity and social progress, particularly if they are accompanied by more personal and sexual freedom." According to his groundbreaking research, major wars usually don't follow depressions, but periods of "sustained economic upswing."
In other words, said "peace, prosperity and social progress. . . . produced by a minority who have had better childrearing [threaten] the majority whose childrearing is so traumatic that too much growth and independence produces. . . panic."
It's bad enough that many of us fail to acknowledge our feelings of unworthiness, guilt, or fear when it comes to economic prosperity. But neither may our war cycle, intended to purge those feelings, have run its course yet.
What if Obama, whose ability to inspire "adds value" to his status as a traditional Democrat, is nominated and loses the general election? Especially if his loss is precipitated by a Swift-boat attack, exactly what else could the Democrats have done?
Old adages like "You can lead a horse to water" and "pearls before swine" will provide scant solace. There's only so much you can do when a large segment of the electorate, lacking in self-respect, is once again hell-bent on sabotaging itself.