For the first time, the US is hearing sustained criticism of its president and, though the Democratic presidential primaries have been going less than two weeks, the effect has been immediate. Bush was already rattled and preoccupied with his suddenly full-throated opposition even before the Iowa vote. He scheduled his state of the union address to follow it by a day, and it was the most poorly rated in modern times. By last weekend, his approval had fallen below 50 percent in a Newsweek poll and he was three points behind Senator John Kerry, the new Democratic frontrunner. \nIn New Hampshire, the turnout for the Democratic primary was the greatest in history, reflecting their determination to oust Bush. \nIntensity of feeling against the president has combined with the need felt for an electable candidate. Democrats don't want either political clarity or political skill, but both in one package. Now, amid the din, the party is finding its voice. New Hampshire began to sort out the candidates. Men of destiny discovered that the crowds were thronging for someone else's future. And those who suffered brutally abrupt judgments tell much by their rejection. \nWesley Clark, former supreme allied commander in Europe, campaigned as a national redemptive hero, and finished a distant third. Senator Joseph Lieberman, the vice-presidential candidate in 2000, ran as rightful pretender, and came in fifth. The Democratic party (unlike the Republican) has no natural deference to eminence or inheritance. Clark is the four-star general as political amateur at a moment when the party demands an experienced politician. Lieberman is a scold of cultural conservatism and defender of Bush's foreign policy when the party wants to storm the barricades under an unwavering standard. \nClark insisted on being drafted to run by a committee that had been created for that purpose. He wanted to be seen as Olympian, above politics and embodying the will of a postwar nation. But he had to struggle through a gruelling primary contest. Fatefully, he decided not to go to Iowa, allowing Kerry to outflank Howard Dean there. The elements that Clark sought to assemble were held by others: Kerry owned electability; John Edwards, southern identity; and Dean, the persona of the Washington outsider. A man of parts, Clark was left in pieces. \nThe general began his New Hampshire campaign with a shot to his foot. Attempting to pull rank, he dismissed Kerry as a mere lieutenant. By his condescension, Clark underscored Kerry's genuine Vietnam war heroism and helped make him less the aloof aristocrat. \nThen he appeared with Michael Moore, the self-promoting leftwing comedian, as responsible as anyone for Nader's destructive sectarian campaign that put Bush in the White House. Moore grabbed the microphone to call the president a "deserter," a remark that Clark spent the rest of the New Hampshire campaign trying to deflect. \nLieberman wanted to advance the right wing's culture war within the party, making a career out of picking fights with Hollywood, the music industry, even proposing a law outlawing rave concerts. As an Orthodox Jew, he lent an aura of the ecumenical to the intolerant. He also cosponsored "faith-based" legislation with the conservative Republican senator Rick Santorum, which gave tax incentives and contracts to churches to perform government services while exempting them from equal opportunity laws. \nLieberman presented his alliances as the only way to uphold decency, family life and "values". He urged the Democrats to reform their evil ways, accept God, and only then receive the promise of salvation. This was the essence of his notion of a New Democrat. \nHe never criticized the religious right for its undermining of the constitution and civil society or for its hateful divisiveness and hypocritical cant. During the unconstitutional impeachment trial of President Clinton, Lieberman was the first Democratic senator to denounce him. On the floor of the Senate, at an uncertain political moment, he upheld Ken Starr as a figure of probity and compared Clinton's private consensual acts with "negative messages communicated by the entertainment culture". \nAl Gore chose him as his running mate partly because of this moralistic posturing. His smug cultural conservatism repelled alienated younger voters and sent them in Ralph Nader's direction. \nLieberman served almost as a genial sidekick to Dick Cheney in their debate. During the Florida contest he publicly conceded, without ever consulting anyone, the Republicans' fraudulent overseas ballots (the so-called "Thanksgiving stuffing"), which cost Gore the presidency. \nOn election night in New Hampshire, Lieberman called Kerry "out of the mainstream", and for old time's sake attacked "the entertainment industry." \nWith the elimination of the quasi-neoconservative and the rookie, the remaining candidates' messages, with relatively minor variations, are the same in almost every respect. Dean can claim he opposed the Iraq war from the start, but they all lash Bush now on his falsehoods and abuse of intelligence to justify it. Among Democrats, the issue is no longer salient in defining one candidate against another. The nuance of difference means that there are no irreparable internal divisions. For the next two months, though the result appears preordained, the Democratic roadshow will barnstorm the country from coast to coast against Bush, more symphony than cacophony. \nSidney Blumenthal, former senior adviser to former US president Bill Clinton, is author of The Clinton Wars.
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
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