Monday, January 26, 2004

Candidate Clark: Tough guy for a tough crowd

To win in November against President George W. Bush, Democrats not only need a candidate with an attractive domestic agenda; they need a tough guy. Circumstances in foreign affairs demand it, and General Wesley Clark fits the bill, a sorely needed shot of testosterone for the liberals' image.

The left is losing support from blue collar America, a trend that must reverse for the sake of the party and nation. Many everyday Americans love their country and, correctly or not, fear that liberals do not. These voters think any Democrat President would be soft on defense.

These voters are wrong, but whether their perceptions are inaccurate is a moot point. As the well-known marketing theory goes, the perception is the reality. Relentless conservative rhetoric, over many years, has firmly implanted the perception, one that many political wonks would agree is deserved.

Once upon a time, tough guys voted Democrat. Then we entered Vietnam, and the peace movement hijacked the Democrat Party. A long series of related political episodes transformed, in a fundamental way, what it means to be a Democrat. The party eventually ceded control to extremists who commandeered liberal politics, nominated George McGovern for the Presidency, and despised tough guys. Leftist radicals-love them or hate them-have maintained undue control and radiated a wimpy persona ever since.

The situation is warped. Democrats wage war, too, after all. Johnson and John F. Kennedy started the very war that gave rise to the 1960s peace movement. And Franklin Roosevelt tag-teamed with his fellow Democrat, Harry Truman, to lead these United States into and out of World War II, victorious.

Fast-forward to 2004. If they are to reclaim the White House, liberals must remind potential voters that Democrats like and want to defend this country. No Democratic contender, except for Clark, can do this unequivocally.

What about Senator John Kerry? At first blush, John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, looks like a solid pro-military Democrat candidate who could beat George W. Bush. Many think he can trump the old stigma, and he might still. But Kerry, current frontrunner and flavor of the week, continually faces conservative pundits' charges, despite his decorated military service, that he is a dove.

Kerry's Vietnam-era dissent surely might galvanize the leftist radical base in his favor, but it will also rally the right-wing radicals against him. For good or ill, many Americans like to think our involvement in Vietnam was a good thing, and their grassroots opinion effort is already underway. The invective evident in viewers' calls to Sunday morning shows such as C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" this past weekend proves it.

The Democrat Party must woo back tough guys. Out there in spades, they vote in droves, and nothing will keep them home on Election Day. Everything Kerry does well to woo lifelong Democrat voters to win the party's nomination would doom him in a general election against President Bush. And that is not a slight against Kerry, but an acknowledgment that conservatives have a clear edge in attracting the tough guy's vote. Just ask Rush Limbaugh.

The soft-on-defense image of Democrats is, in historical context, both fair and erroneous, but hope exists. The Clark candidacy is a bona fide response to history. It says, "We hear, understand, and respect you," to tough guys everywhere. Given General Clark as the choice, tough guys will vote Democrat once again.

Realities, perceived

Conservatives of many stripes perceive Howard Dean to be the George McGovern of our time, the antiwar candidate. Dean isn’t really antiwar, but just try to convince a conservative of this; the fruits of the debater's labor would be few indeed, no matter how much the Democrat Party's base wants Dean. And the base really wants him.

This is a problem. Democrats need an overwhelmingly, undeniably, and indiscriminately patriotic ticket for the White House, the only thing that will beat George W. Bush in November. The reasons why cut straight to the heart of the cultural divide that is paralyzing American politics.

Many Americans fear, deep down, that a Democrat President will not defend this country in a time of war. The perception is a testament to neoconservative, far-right activists’ (e.g., Richard Scaife et al.) concerted, systematic, and relentless efforts to paint Democrats as unpatriotic commies.

U.S. citizens particularly susceptible to ultra-conservative propaganda perceive the Democrats as no less than traitors to these United States. They fancy that a totalitarian, fascist Democratic National Committee issues edicts from on high to its liberal minions, encouraging political operatives to ally and collude with other nations, destroy the U.S. Constitution, and eventually implement "Communism Light" (i.e., socialism) once the ashes of a destroyed democracy, forever synonymous in conservatives’ minds with a particular brand of anti-Keynesian capitalism, have settled.

Democrats would do well not to stereotype these conservatives, who fit no stereotypes. The stereotypical leftist’s propensity to trivialize ultra-conservatives as "Confederate flag–waving, racist bigots who aren’t that smart" is an inaccurate perception itself and only stretches a polarity whose connecting line of communication, pretty taut, is nearing the breaking point.

The conservative’s perception of the liberal as undaunted traitor is also inaccurate, however deserved the label may be. The average conservative (and, for that matter, liberal) voter’s attention span only entertains first impressions, and politics, at first blush, often resembles something it isn’t.

The average voter, left or right, busy with the myriad responsibilities of living (including making one), takes little time to formulate an opinion about politics, a subject she detests. Yet the resulting opinion, ironically, is nevertheless strong. For the conservative, it is thus:

1) Peacenik commie pinkos tend to vote Democrat.

2) Buzz-cut retired armed forces members who fight to defend us tend to vote Republican.

“Any questions?” the conservative then asks you.

Don’t even ask. “Perception is the reality,” as they used to love to tell us in graduate school. The idea is this: People generally act according to their perceptions. The left side of the aisle must deal with the conservative voter’s perception, which equals, if not the Democrat’s real intent, certainly the reality of the situation when it comes to winning votes to seize the White House.

But do not despair, for the Democrat Party will call upon its ingenuity and do everything in its power before it suffers demise courtesy of an inaccurate perception. The Democrat Party's power and ingenuity, not to mention its resiliency, are formidable.

A coordinated effort is underway to shatter the perceptions that conservatives harbor (at least the ones harbored by more reasonable conservatives: the moderate ones). Recent events indicate that the Democratic National Committee has issued edicts from on high. Political operatives, the other heavy-hitting candidates for the Democratic nomination, are allying to eliminate the elements contributing to this perceived reality before it ruins anyone’s chance to remove Bush from office.

This is their plan:

Give the Democrat Party’s base its time in the limelight. Let Dean appear on all the important Sunday morning political shows. Create the illusion of “a movement to take back America.” Make the base’s members feel like they’ve played with everyone else, fair and square.

Then put the squeeze on Howard Dean. Attack him on two fronts. Defeat the base summarily in Iowa (with John Kerry, retired and decorated military man) and in New Hampshire (with General Wesley Clark, American hero and former NATO commander).

If all goes well, the Democrat Party’s base will go home defeated but also satisfied, pleased that the party leadership listened to the base’s grievances. The threat of a third-party candidacy will decrease dramatically, and the base will get in line behind a Clark/Kerry ticket, the Democrats’ patriotic ticket, the only Democrat ticket that can shatter perceptions and win the White House.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Deadlines are firm

An adjunct faculty member who teaches a communications industry writing course for sophomores and juniors attending a prestigious communication school at a large university in the Northeast, I shamelessly promote myself by proclaiming this with pomp and circumstance. We're all entitled to bask in our personal glories from time to time, and my demeanor, while always adamant and direct, is also usually humble. Consider my dues paid.

I led the first session of the new semester's class last night. The kids are going to be extra fun this time. Why? They laughed uncontrollably at my jokes.

Is that my ego posturing? Perhaps. I strive to be the best. Professors with a good sense of humor are the best, as my experiences of yore taught me when I was still the young, rapt kid sitting in that steel chair replete with a small, attached desk.

Who forgets a joke? I rarely do. And who forgets a funny professor? I never have. If a lesson accompanies the joke, is it too much to presume that the student will also remember? Students who laugh at my jokes remind me that I'm doing a good job. Humor is the lubricant of life, and, as I saunter across the classroom floor before their eyes, my prevailing goal is to lubricate the gnashing gears that learn.


Every semester, I tweak the original syllabus I developed just a few semesters ago. The approach makes sense for someone who must also tend to a full-time job. I continually endeavor to make the document clearer, more specific, and, last but not least, funnier.

And there's nothing funny about deadlines, which is why Brent's Theory of Teaching says, "Deadlines, described, must be extra funny." I always seem to acquiesce when students give me their excuses for missing deadlines. My fear of being an ogre gets the best of me, which allows the students to get the best of me, a new professor still learning the ropes of discipline.

Good news: I may have rounded the learning curve of discipline this time, when I decided to have a little fun with the "Deadlines" section of the syllabus. A certain vein of thinking drove me: If this syllabus section manages to walk the thin line that divides what's funny from what's serious, I'll have a much easier time, thereafter, actually being serious about deadlines.

Last night's troupe of sophomores and juniors was in stitches after I read the revamped "Deadlines" section. "Mission accomplished!" I immediately thought. Following is the "Deadlines" section excerpt, for all to read. And if you laugh, please let my ego know.

Excerpt from Prof. Brent's Syllabus:

Deadlines are firm, and leeway will be virtually nonexistent. If you intend to pass in your work late, don’t even bother. An accumulation of missed deadlines (or even just one) would easily cost someone his or her job. Your grade on an assignment will reflect its tardy delivery. This reflection will always be something other than pretty: A late assignment in this course will, with precious few exceptions, receive a grade of 0 percent.

Schedule clinic or doctors’ appointments so that you can pass in an assignment on time and attend the full class session as well. Unless you are admitted to a hospital, an illness will not earn my sympathy. I may have finished this syllabus at the last minute today, but you are strongly encouraged not to emulate my derelict ways. This means any unfortunate run-ins with malfunctioning computers or printers just prior to the deadline equal tough luck.

I have a soft spot for car crashes when they land you in intensive care or occur on the day of class. Please be prepared to share the riveting account with your classmates and professor. Air travel mishaps, whether you survive, are also acceptable for missing deadlines. Boating accidents are considered on a case-by-case basis. Please do not ride snowmobiles.