The Columbia Nine

Sharpton energizes, Edwards scandalizes, the media terrorizes

Creative Loafing went to Columbia, S.C., last weekend to hunt for a Big Idea. You know the kind — that visionary government proposal that expands possibility — the New Deal, the Apollo program, the Peace Corps.

And what better place to look than the spot where all nine wannabes for the Democratic nomination for president gathered to shake their electoral tail feathers in front of the national press and the Carolina party faithful.

But why a Big Idea? Because the success of this election for Democrats will be measured in new voters, and new voters will have to be inspired and given a real choice between the campaigns.

Unfortunately for Democrats, their recent history is a tale of squeamish half-stepping. Forty-six percent of the voting-age population — a group laden with the poor, minorities and young people — stayed home during the 2000 election, so there seems to be a gap between what the party is saying and the tipping point where disaffected voters actually pay attention.

Indeed, throughout the weekend's convention and debate, one could sense a tension between what the energized crowd wanted and what the candidates were giving them. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, explained it this way: "There is a real hunger and anger among the voters to recognize what's going on, that we're losing what America stands for right now, and nobody's doing a damn thing to stop it."

If that hunger is to be satisfied, it will take the right ideas explained by the right person the right way. So far, however, most of the campaigns look like they haven't lost the rhetorical training wheels.

At the party convention, held in the anti-ambience of a hangar-like building on the state fairgrounds, only the Rev. Al Sharpton completely locked in with the crowd. Compared to him, the rest of the candidates came off looking like well-meaning copier salesmen.

The reverend had the crowd on its feet cheering when they weren't doubled up with laughter. He capped his four-minute speech by explaining that his candidacy will energize the party by reaching out to the grassroots and appealing to the non-voters left out by the money, media, message mantra that dominates modern campaigns. "My grandma told me that to get a donkey to move, you've got to slap it," Sharpton bellowed in reference to the party. "I'm gonna slap the donkey 'til the donkey kicks, and we're going to kick George Bush out of office! I'm going to slap the donkey!"

The crowd roared. Pity U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who took the stage after the reverend. It was sort of like the White Stripes opening for your kid brother's AC/DC cover band.

Later that night during the debate, Sharpton again came up with the evening's most memorable line. When asked by the moderator, ABC's George Stephanopoulos, whether he would repeal the Bush tax cuts, Sharpton called them a suicidal economic plan and compared the tax cuts to cult leader Jim Jones' Kool-Aid. "It tastes good, but it will kill you." Too bad Sharpton has demagogued his way out of serious consideration. Maybe the eventual winner will hire him as a speech writer and debate coach. Because there are candidates who would make a worthwhile nominee.

And it was in the spirit of finding that person, the one capable of bringing out your inner-progressive, that CL schlubbed around to each campaign asking the same question: What problem and policy solution have you identified about which the other campaigns aren't even talking?

Surprisingly, there were a few promising answers out there that said something about the vision of the candidates offering them. The campaigns of Dean, U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, and former ambassador and Illinois U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun all laid out plans (see boxed item) that re-envision how government works. They may not all be Big Ideas, but they represent a start.

Now, the question is whether those ideas actually get communicated to the American public. Their fate rests largely with the press, and judging by the coverage this weekend's festivities received, the prospects don't look so good. Save for mentions of Gephardt's audacious health care plan, next-day coverage of the convention and debate largely focused on the squabbling between Dean and U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, and pumping up Connecticut U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman for looking presidential, never mind the fact that his candidacy generates the kind of excitement with the base that navy blue slacks do on Christmas Day. One wonders whether Democrats learned the lesson in November 2002, that voters will choose a real Republican over a candidate who just looks and sounds like one.

Exhibit A: On Saturday afternoon, just outside the convention hall, you could find Time columnist and Primary Colors author, Joe Klein debating with former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers the implications of Edwards' early departure from South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn's Friday night fish fry. It was like listening to two old biddies at a church potluck. You half expected them to dis Edwards' macaroni casserole as dry and mealy. But Klein and Myers were merely reflections of the media's myopic mania. Edwards' press secretary, Jennifer Palmieri, spent much of Saturday morning fielding questions from reporters about her candidate's fish fry fiasco while gaggles of television cameras flitted from candidate to candidate as they each made their entrances to a mid-morning meet-and-greet.

It was easy to miss the small but significant details that illustrate exactly where this party is. Take a meeting of a group of South Carolina progressives. It was open to the media, but reporters didn't show. Brett Bursey, the director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, has an idea to re-energize grassroots organizing — the same thing the GOP did across the South in 2002 — and focus on the scores of people who aren't voting instead of the small percentage of Southern Republican moderates with which the party seems preoccupied. Unwittingly, his struggle seems to sum up where the party finds itself about eight months removed from the first primary. "There's an argument to be made, and I'm making it, that we do not need to create a third party to have a progressive force in South Carolina, because the Democratic Party has been abandoned," Bursey says. "It's like 'Oh. We want to cross this river. Well, let's build a raft.' Well, wait a minute. Here's an ocean liner sitting here without a captain. Let's take over the ocean liner."