In 2004, voters will be less focused on personality and cultural differences and more on substantive issues.

In less than a year, Democratic politicians will be slogging through the snow and ice of New Hampshire searching for votes. This quadrennial exercise in grassroots democracy and media expectations, formally known as the New Hampshire primary, is great fun for political junkies like me. It also means that it’s not too early to start thinking about presidential politics.

The following is some unsolicited advice to Democrats: emphasize party unity.

The major obstacle to presenting a unified approach is the primary process itself. Democrats will be tempted to bash their opponents without considering how the attacks might weaken the eventual nominee. However, if each candidate can restrain from negative personal attacks (while still contrasting their policy differences and experience from their opponents), then the party will have a much easier job of convincing the public that they are unified.

Given the international crises of the last year and a half (Sept. 11, Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea), it does not take a political expert to predict the broad themes of Bush’s re-election campaign: security, trust and experience.

Bush will use his leadership on the war on terrorism and Iraq to contrast him with the inexperienced (and thus risky) Democrats.

In order to neutralize the effectiveness of this contrast, a group could be formed that would communicate to the public the vast and varied experience of potential members of a new Democratic administration. These potential members could be the defeated presidential candidates. In particular, the group could conceptualize what a hypothetical presidential cabinet might look like for a new Democratic president. For example:

Joseph Lieberman: The former vice-presidential candidate to Al Gore would be a great commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. He could use his moral authority to continue his campaign of trying to nudge Hollywood to de-emphasize sex and violence in the marketing of their products.

Gary Hart: The former presidential candidate would be a superb secretary of defense. He is widely respected on a bipartisan basis for his defense policy views. Moreover, he has been ahead of his time in anticipating national security needs; he even predicted the probability of a major terrorist attack on the U.S. before Sept. 11 occurred.

Dick Gephardt: The former leader of the House Democrats could the ideal person to be the trade representative. He has consistently articulated the need for an integrated approach to foreign trade agreements, with due weight given to labor and environmental standards. This could be a critical step in broadening our approach to international affairs.

Bob Graham: The current senior senator from Florida has questioned the Bush administration’s priorities in fighting terrorism since Sept. 11. He believes that international terrorism is more of an immediate threat than Iraq. Graham could be an effective head of Homeland Security.

Howard Dean: The former Vermont governor brings with him substantial executive experience, having served over 11 years as governor. A physician, he has offered creative and practical proposals to try to provide more Americans health insurance. He could be a great secretary of Health and Human Services.

John Edwards: The North Carolina senator is a former trial lawyer who has the reputation of fighting for the little guy. Many people feel the current Attorney General John Ashcroft has not struck the proper balance between civil liberties and national security. He could be just what the country is looking for in an attorney general.

John Kerry: The Massachusetts Democrat and former war hero could be a great secretary of state. Like Colin Powell, he would command respect as a decorated veteran. However as a Democrat, he might aggressively pursue other critical international objectives (such as combating global warming) that are crucial in securing a safe future.

I believe the presidential election of 2004 will be very different than the last one: citizens will be less focused on personality and cultural differences and more on substantive issues.

If that is true, the Democrats should anticipate this shift. Emphasizing party unity may reassure a nervous country and thus increase the chances of victory in the general election.

Karl Trautman is chairman of the Department of Social Sciences at Central Maine Technical College in Auburn.

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