Choosing the next president 

I have every right to rent a tuxedo and a top hat, shove all my cash into my cummerbund, and walk the meanest streets of Detroit’s Cass Corridor carrying a half-filled martini glass in the wee hours of the morning.

Nevertheless, the intelligent would see this as a bad idea, and few or none would have much sympathy for my little butt when the inevitable happened.

Which brings us, naturally, to the next presidential election. Most normal people think it is far away, and not worth worrying about yet. And they are dead wrong.

Actually, we’re deep in the process now, and the Democratic presidential nominee will be determined in the next nine or 10 months.

And here’s what you need to know: This country has been hijacked by a right-wing faction which believes it has the right to wage pre-emptive wars and overthrow other nations, as long as they perceive them as presenting some vague threat to us.

They already have caused a panicked Congress to pass laws canceling out some of our long-cherished civil liberties. But they aren’t satisfied, and fully intend to make some of their temporary assaults on our freedoms permanent — read PATRIOT Act II.

They intend a never-ending shadow war against terrorism, and talk of invading Syria.

Meanwhile, the economy is drifting downward, retirement savings have been wiped out and a health care crisis of national proportions is looming.

Nice work for barely two years in office. Imagine what John Ashcroft, Don Rumsfeld, “Halliburton Dick” Cheney and ... oh, yes, the Shrub might do if they have another term to play with. Starting to get the picture?

What we have to do, then, is figure out fast which candidate has the best chance at beating our national disaster. Winning won’t be easy. The only hope lies in finding a candidate who can convince voters that he can restore the economy while reassuring them he can also keep the terrorists at bay.

You can refuse to settle for anyone you think less than perfect. But you do so at our peril. While I didn’t want George Bush’s father to be re-elected or Bob Dole to win the presidency four years later, I hadn’t the slightest doubt that the republic could have survived them, more or less unscathed. But I am deeply worried now.

Many of the Green Party’s criticisms of our political system are valid. Yet the fact is that there is no possible way to defeat Bush other than by uniting around a Democrat. Yes, none of the current front-running candidates has been a consistent profile in courage. But none would appoint Ashcroft or Rumsfeld or anyone nearly as bad to high policy-making positions either, and that’s vitally important.

This election is not really about them. It’s about us. And we don’t have a lot of time. The New Hampshire primary is barely eight months away, and within six weeks after that, we’ll know, almost certainly, the nominee. That’s because the process is now so “front-loaded” with early primaries and caucuses and so heavily dependent on raising vast sums very early. Candidates know if they lose the first primaries, money dries up fast. Barring extra-terrestrial intervention, the nominee will be one of the nine Democrats already running for president. Actually, that’s not even true.

Three have no possible chance: Carol Moseley-Braun, a disastrous one-term senator from Illinois; Dennis Kucinich, a laughingstock as mayor of Cleveland and still not ready for prime time; and Al Sharpton, who is, well, Al Sharpton.

That leaves these guys: Howard Dean, a country doctor and former governor of Vermont; John Edwards, senator from North Carolina; Dick Gephardt, the longtime congressman from Missouri; Bob Graham, Florida senator; John Kerry, a Massachusetts senator; and Joe Lieberman, senator from Connecticut.

The nominee will be one of them. Here’s the essential problem: Finding one you can feel good about who also has a chance of putting together enough electoral votes to win. The states Al Gore took last time now have 260 electoral votes, which means that if any Democrat can hold all those and add 10 more electoral votes, he wins the White House.

Dick Gephardt’s Missouri, which voted narrowly for Bush, would do it. Surprisingly, Gephardt has put forward the best workable idea so far, a proposal to expand medical insurance to nearly all uninsured Americans. Trouble is, as a personality and a congressional leader he was, and is, a dud.

Joe Lieberman has the most name recognition; he was Gore’s running mate. But he’s the furthest right of the Democrats. He also was clearly bested by Dick Cheney during their debate, and would be the most unacceptable to Ralph Nader voters.

Bob Graham is an older Southern senator whose appeal stems mainly from the fact he’s from Florida. John Edwards, the youngest candidate (50), may be the sleeper: a handsome trial lawyer with an amazing rags-to-riches life story. He’s raised more money than any other Democrat. But he’s a hawk, which ticks off the liberals, and has no foreign policy experience, only four years in politics, and isn’t widely known.

That leaves John Kerry, probably the favorite. A Vietnam hero, he first won headlines when he turned against that war. He has experience and intelligence, but has trouble raising passions and sometimes seems aloof.

Howard Dean has been the most consistently liberal and most exciting new face, opposing the war in Iraq all the way. One can imagine early primary voters being put off by Kerry and falling in love with Dean, as happened with George McGovern. But it’s hard to imagine Dean putting together enough states to win the White House.

That’s the situation in a nutshell. Now, it’s up to you to learn more, and do something. If you don’t, the result could be worse than if you decided to prance merrily around the Cass Corridor. We are, after all, talking about the world here.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to

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