THE BLOG
05/01/2008 08:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Defining Insanity

If, as they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result, it may be time to sign us Democrats up for the funny farm.

Which of our candidates can beat McCain? Both of them. Which one will beat McCain? Possibly neither of them -- unless we trade in our straightjackets for some straight talk of our own.

Successful campaigns hinge on effectively defining the opposition. It's not about who the candidates are -- it's about who says who the candidates are. If you define your opponent, you win. If your opponent defines you, they win. Just ask Al Gore and John Kerry.

The Bush campaign spent $70 million in April of 2004 to define John Kerry as a flip flopper, weak on defense, and weird. Those ads -- "Doublespeak", "Weapons", and "Wacky" -- played April 21, April 26 and May 30 respectively. They set the stage for the caricature that followed. That buy laid the groundwork for the swift boating to come (incidentally, the swift boat series hit the airwaves in August -- a month when, according to conventional wisdom, nothing really happens).

2004 was no anomaly. In 2000, Bush and company defined Gore so well that according to Rolling Stone, "a review conducted by two nonpartisan groups, Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Research Center, found that a stunning 67 percent of the Gore campaign coverage in early 2000 centered around two negative themes: that he lies and exaggerates, and that he's tarred by scandal." Mark Fabiani, Gore's communication director, said it best, "If you let people's pre-existing notions prevail, you deserve what you get."

If Democrats want to win, we have to start defining McCain now. Not in a few months, not after a few more superdelegates have made their choices, and absolutely not after the convention. We have to tell people who John McCain is now -- before he has a chance to tell them himself.

The best news is we don't have to rely on Bush-like unethical push polls and rumors about illegitimate babies to do it. McCain has plenty to work with all on his own. There's the underreported temper for one thing. And for the record, its not one of those "yeah, he gets a little hot around the collar" kind of tempers but more like a "he curses at his wife in public" kind of tempers. Unlikely to go over real well with the soccer moms. And do the American people really want someone that off-kilter picking up the 3 am phone call -- having his finger on the proverbial button? We seriously doubt it. If only they knew about it.

Then there's the whole Keating Five thing -- what was that about again? Oh yeah, financial institutions that padded the pockets of executives while regular Americans got hosed. A meltdown of responsibility that cost taxpayers billions of dollars -- sound familiar? Most people have probably forgotten the whole thing. It's about time to remind them.

Of course, we could just point out that in this time that cries out for government reform the "Maverick" has packed his campaign with lobbyists and Washington insiders. We could explain in this day of ever-changing technological advancements that McCain was born before FM radio. And while his age alone shouldn't exclude him, it's not as though he's offered a robust vision about preparing America for these changing times (or really any vision about the future at all). We could let people know that the man who hopes to lead us out of financial disaster really just isn't that "interested" in economics. Of course he doesn't really need to be -- heiress wife Cindy will cover the bills. If that isn't enough there's always the 100-year war and "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." Seal it all with a big kiss on the head from George Bush, and we could beat McCain whichever candidate we pick.

So what's the problem?

We aren't doing it.

The New York Times this week described a current "hodgepodge" of efforts by the party and its allies to challenge McCain now before he gets traction. Nice effort but how much can a Democratic Party with $5.3 million in the bank at the end of March really do? MoveOn.org is planning a campaign to mark the 5th anniversary of Bush's declaration of the end of major combat operations. That's good, that should help. And an independent group Progressive Media USA, which has already run some ads in Ohio and Pennsylvania, is planning to spend "tens of millions" to educate the public about McCain. That is, just as soon as they raise tens of millions of dollars. Therein lies the rub.

While John McCain is straight-talking his way into the hearts and minds of the American people, most major democratic funders are waiting to see who wins the primary. It is admittedly hard to focus on Act 2 when Act 1 is such a nail-biter, especially when at each juncture it seems like the end may be just around the corner. But it is time to decide that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Because if we don't define McCain now, it won't matter who wins the primary. Yes, I know, the other guy/gal is a lightweight-bong-smoking-all-talk-cold-calculating-pms-ridden-shrew (after all, the right wing media said so, right?). But you have to do it anyway, because your country needs you and because McCain really is that bad.

He is neither the moderate nor the reformer that he pretends to be. He's wrong on Iraq, he's wrong on health care, he's wrong on Social Security, he's wrong on the economy, and he's wrong on taxes. His judges and his cabinet will be just as ideological as Bush's. His presidency will suffer from the same intractability. His government agencies will be filled with similar political appointments. The K Street project will continue. Washington will remain a morass of self-interests incapable of meeting the grave and great challenges in front of us. All for the want of a horseshoe nail.

So here we are in 2008 -- the same thing is happening as we saw happen to McCain and Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. All of this noise -- about flag-pins, patriotism, Hamas, Ayers, Wright (for him) and cold, bitchy, lying (for her) -- is just another coordinated effort by the conservative movement to define our candidate. If you don't think its working, check out the latest polls.

In chess, if your opponent puts one of your pieces in jeopardy, you can either protect it or challenge a piece of theirs of equal or greater value. Well, our king and queen are both in jeopardy and we're taking a bathroom break.

The worst part is that it's completely unnecessary. Over the last couple of years, progressives have built a robust communications infrastructure -- the beginning of our own echo chamber -- to challenge the right wing dominance of the media. We have research groups, media outlets, media monitors, government watchdogs, communications organizations, internet fueled organizing groups, and bloggers, bloggers and more bloggers.

But we need the paid media (and the funders who support it) to step up now before it's too late. If we think the Democratic Party is divided now, wait until we lose a general election with 81% wrong track number and just watch the recriminations fly.

Fighting for your primary candidate is understandable. Failing to define McCain now while we still can? Now that's just crazy.