Who’ll be weenie at Sunday’s roast?

The first presidential debate of the season is set for this Sunday, and as usual it should be a fun night of screaming at the TV and wondering how politics got so screwed up.
Of course it’s all show — candy for political junkies. The most you can hope for is some colorful one-liners that will live in temporary infamy. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” (Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle) “Who am I? Why am I here?” (Adm. James Stockdale to the ceiling) and “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” (Ronald Reagan to Walter Mondale).
This year finds us with two anomalies. Usually it’s the Democrats who can’t convey clear messages and the Republicans who find clever little catch phrases that sound good when you repeat them at your neighborhood bar. Obviously Dole isn’t cutting it in the clear message department.
But overall, say what you will about Republicans, they know how to spin. The Contract (out on) America is a great example. It gave reporters something to focus on and allowed the Grand Old Party plenty of print space and air time to spout off about how other people should live their lives.
And where was the opposing voice? Clinton made some objections, but somehow he always sounded conciliatory, as if he felt Newt and Co. were on the right track but just needed to be reeled in a bit.
Then there was wimpy little Dick Gephardt, the House minority “leader,” begging voters to take back his party.
“You give us another chance, you give us another chance in 1996, and by 1998 we will address your concerns with a modest, achievable, feasible agenda; a practical, realistic agenda that will deal with jobs and wages, health care, education, retirement security and fighting crime, and we will make this country great again,” he whined at a news conference in August. Really gets you fired up, doesn’t it?
If you’re looking for something concrete and intelligent to scream at your TV image of Bob Dole — when he says something inane like he wants a huge tax cut so he can “finish the job Ronald Reagan started so beautifully” — go pick up a copy of James Carville’s “We’re Right, They’re Wrong.”
This spunky little book rips apart idiotic Republican positions and uses hard data (census bureau numbers and reputable university studies, for example) to back up its arguments.
In fact, Carville’s book starts with the GOP myth that goes a little something like this: Reagan didn’t totally screw over the country.
“He promised us that he would balance the federal budget by 1984. Not even close. By the time he rode off into the sunset, Reagan had racked up almost $2 trillion in debt. … He promised that his tax cuts on the rich would lead to unprecedented growth in our productivity and savings. Wrong. Productivity growth was pathetically anemic, and our savings rate plummeted. The whole damn thing was pure alchemy.”
On to welfare. Carville (also known as the Ragin’ Cajun, the brains behind Clinton’s ’92 campaign) quotes an opinions piece in USA Today by former Secretary of Education William Bennett that says welfare’s a “system that fosters illegitimacy and its attendant social pathologies.” We’ve been hearing that argument so often that some of us might be apt to believe it one of these days.
Carville’s not convinced. The GOP’s stand that we can either spend less money and solve all our problems or spend more money and make everything worse is just a way to make their cuts in welfare seem less cruel. “There’s just one problem: The Republicans’ message is based on nothing but wishful thinking. Yes, we have huge problems of dependency and out-of-wedlock births in this country, but welfare spending did not create these problems. And cutting welfare isn’t going to cure them.”
He also reprints, among other things, part of a 1993 study at the University of Wisconsin that said, “The possibility of receiving more benefits does not enter into the decisions women on welfare may make about having another child.”
The Republicans’ take on the flat tax, family values, so-called failed government programs and Clinton’s health care plan are also demystified and debunked. It’s a great way to get pumped up about being a Democrat. Forget the apologies and start kicking some ass, including that of some fellow left-of-centerers. “I don’t know what the hell has gotten into us, but we Democrats are too eager to give ground,” Carville writes. “We’re a bunch of well-meaning weenies.”
Let’s hope Sunday night finds Clinton on the offense, not at all weenie-esque, and without apologies. Because like the Ragin’ Cajun says: We’re right, they’re wrong.

Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday.