You might remember MAD – the Cold War policy of Mutually Assured Destruction in which the United States and the Soviet Union each planned to obliterate the other in the event of a nuclear attack. Well, among themselves, the Democratic presidential candidates have triggered their own version of mutually assured destruction.

If the economic gains being reported now prove to be a genuine start of recovery, it could put a big dent in the Democrats' 2004 campaign plans. But right now, they are facing another formidable danger.

For some weeks now, a visitor from Mars, observing his first election campaign, could be forgiven if he thought the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination were advance men for George Bush, so eagerly have they been tearing each other down.

Most of these forays into political fratricide have targeted discrepancies between past and present positions on a variety of issues, implying deviousness or inconstancy or both.

And most have been aimed at front-runner Howard Dean. Richard Gephardt denounces Dean for flip-flopping on Medicare, having previously supported cuts in the program. John Kerry contrasts a statement Dean made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, suggesting we might need to re-evaluate some of our civil liberties, with his present attacks on the USA Patriot Act.

For his part, Dean likes to borrow the late Paul Wellstone's quip: "I belong to the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the implication being that his opponents aren't real Democrats. And Dean accuses Gephardt, Kerry, Joe Lieberman and John Edwards – all members of Congress, all supporters of the war resolution – of trying to get off that hook by asking questions now that they should have asked before voting for the resolution.

The newcomer, Wesley Clark, who entered the race flying so high, might have been brought down the most, at least in the short term. The former general has been fired upon because of remarks he made in support of the Bush team while he was still in uniform – implying that he is not a true Democrat, but merely a political opportunist.

On a lighter note: In one recent debate, Dean called Kerry's positions "Bush-lite." A questioner told Lieberman the phrase also is the rap on him, but Lieberman indicated that he thought "Bush-lite" fit better on Clark. And so it goes.

Interestingly, these candidates do agree on quite a number of important things, including a more cooperative foreign policy in place of Bush's unilateralism and a "war on terrorism" that includes relieving the desperate conditions in countries where terrorism is spawned. They agree that Social Security and health care must be reformed, that the promise to leave no child behind must be truly kept and funded, that Bush's relentless dismantling of hard-won environmental gains must be reversed, and, last but hardly least, they share a passionate desire to expel Bush and what they call the radical right from the White House and break their grip on Congress.

Of course, there are serious issues of substance and of detail separating candidates, and to some extent this is both natural and healthy. Resolving such conflicts is how any party composed of different interest groups develops its platform and game plan for the general election.

But the personal attacks the candidates have been making on one another are anything but healthy.

Without making any judgment about the accuracy of individual charges, these attacks uniformly ignore any possibility that the accused might have, with time and experience, simply changed his mind on an issue (of course, the outrage caused by Dean's Confederate flag gaffe should be classed as a self-inflicted wound).

But one thing should be obvious to everyone: The damage done will not go away after the nominee is chosen. It will persist, and it will be used by the Republicans against whomever the chosen one might be. Indeed, the leading Democrats might be writing the Republicans' campaign book for them.

A contested primary always is a process of elimination. For the Democrats, the problem with this one is that it threatens to eliminate them all.


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©2003 Walter Cronkite

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