The War for the White House Is On

While news media are saturated with field reports from Iraq, and Congress wrestles over how much money, exactly, can be shoveled into the pockets of the already obscenely wealthy, and in how many ways, the battle that should concern everyone the most is quietly taking away from the headlines.

Welcome to the 2004 presidential race. It will be over -- except for the voting, of course -- before 2004 even begins.

For the long-term freedom, health, prosperity, and security of Americans -- and the world's other six billion people, and all its other species, too -- there is no more critical task in the coming months than to oust George W. Bush, and the lunatics surrounding him, in November 2004.

In a genuine democracy, of course, that would happen in November 2004, as a function of votes cast. But American democracy comes with a very large asterisk attached -- or, more accurately, a dollar sign. The stakes involved in the presidency, and the enormous amount of money required for even a serious campaign, has steadily pushed the nomination process earlier in the past 25 years. It won't be too many months now before money -- infamously defined as "free speech" through a contortion of legal logic by conservative Supreme Court justices in 1976 -- will be the only sort of speech that counts for much in the presidential race.

In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush essentially had their parties' nominations sewn up before a single primary vote was cast. That left Americans with what many of us felt was a distinctly unappetizing choice between two men who appeared far more alike than different. Into that lethargic campaign, Bush poured so much corporate money that he turned down federal matching funds; they would have cramped his style. And we know what happened then.

This time, with the advantages of incumbency and a four-year track record of manna for the extremely wealthy, Bush may well double his record 2000 total. Already, during the 2002 midterm campaign, Bush exploited the resources of White House incumbency like no other occupant before him -- including the famously sleazy Clinton. The result, focusing on now- illegal soft money contributions, was not only the now-comfortable Republican control of Congress, but an early war chest for 2004, and an indication of what's to come. The quid-pro-quo corruption of this bunch is not only unprecedented in modern American politics, but it will shatter previous spending records as corporations and fat cats line up to "vote" for Dubya.

Fortunately for the Democrats, if judged on political performance rather than image-making, Bush is by far the most incompetent president in memory. But in 2002, Democrats counted on that performance, particularly the still-lousy economy. It will take more. To win next year, a Democratic candidate will need exceptional fundraising skills, and maximum time, to even have a shot at unseating Bush.

In theory it shouldn't matter whether the most dangerous electoral incumbent in the history of the world has a staggering money advantage. In practice, it does. All that money buys a whole lot of image. As we've just seen, a relentless message from the White House can convince people of even the most preposterous things. The sky is purple. Grass is orange. Iraq launched 9-11. George W. Bush should be re-elected.

Into this buzzsaw will step, almost certainly, one of the nine already-declared Democratic primary candidates: Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, Bob Graham, Rev. Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley- Braun, and Dennis Kucinich.

Any one of these nine would be vastly better than Dubya. It's far more important that one of them win than that they be the best of the nine in terms of how much better than Dubya they would be politically.

So let's start clearing the decks. Dennis Kucinich is one of the most ethical and courageous individuals in American politics today. He's also completely unelectable as President; the activist energy now going into his campaign is energy that could be used to promote someone who can win. Likewise, Sharpton, while not the cartoon many people seem to think, is also a moot point, as are Moseley-Braun (too bad) and Bob Graham (thank goodness.)

Most of the buzz right now is around Dean, an independent-leaning former Vermont governor who is friendly to business, liberal on social issues and foreign policy, and fiercely pro-gun. He's moved from the electoral hinterlands to a viable candidacy by dint of his early (he's since backed off a bit) willingness to criticize Bush's war when, remarkably, few other Democrats would. John Kerry, the most liberal of the other front-runners now that Gephardt has recast himself as a DLC type, has also been making some vaguely critical noises, particularly when he thinks nobody but party loyalists might be listening.

Kerry has one thing Dean doesn't: money, and established networks for getting more of it. By March 31 Kerry had already collected $7 million, putting him alongside Edwards (a glib, Clinton-style DLC Southerner who is as frightening as Lieberman but without the experience) as the money frontrunner. Gephardt was third at month's end with only half that total -- $3.6 million.

Much could still change. Lieberman's campaign has been sagging among Democrats, but his name recognition and money-friendly conservatism means he can't be dismissed. Wild cards like Gen. Wesley Clark (now doing a star turn as CNN's war analyst) may still announce.

But the field won't be open long. This is now how America chooses its presidents -- through money, media, polling, and more money. Actual voters are only invited at the very end.

I am not a loyalist of any party; I also have a track record of being fiercely critical of "Lesser of Two Evils" voting. And I tend to think local community-building matters more than electoral politics. But at this point in history there is no room for neutrality, nor for ideological purity. In less than 19 months, Americans will get our only serious opportunity to prevent George Bush from running this country for eight years. We'd better unite behind someone else, soon, and get busy. Our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will thank us.

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