When Vice President George Bush ran for the Republican nomination to
succeed Ronald Reagan as president (against several other notable Republicans),
there were seven major candidates for the Democratic nomination vying for the
chance to take him on in the general election.
Since there was no logical front-runner and a clear gap between their
stature and that of the sitting vice president of the
Fast forward to 2003 and it looks like the Democrats are lining up the Seven Dwarfs to run against his son, President George W. Bush. (This line-up also vaguely reminds me of the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” “There’s Daschle and Gephardt and Sharpton and Edwards…”) Former Vice President Al Gore’s decision not to enter the 2004 presidential race makes the field look… smaller. The position of front-runner again appears fluid; of those who have begun testing the waters – and Hillary Clinton has not yet given any indication she will be dipping her toes in – no one has the appearance of inevitability about them.
Let’s size up these dwarfs:
John Kerry: Massachusetts’ junior senator has set up an exploratory committee to see if he can follow in the footsteps of another Bay State senator with the initials “JFK.” Kerry is a decorated Vietnam veteran who first attained national prominence when he returned home from combat and served as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. His voting record is approximately as liberal as Ted Kennedy’s – he opposes the death penalty and was one of just 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by that defender of marriage Bill Clinton – but has tacked to the center just often enough that there’s still time for him to reposition himself as a New Democrat.
Instead, it looks like he is going to run as a typical Massachusetts liberal. Basking in support from the Hollywood Left, Kerry was quoted by CNN as saying, “No new tax cuts,” although he has recently signaled a desire to shift the debate to one over who gets tax cuts. He is also trying to achieve the delicate balance between opposing President Bush on Iraq while having voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force. Did I mention that he once served as lieutenant governor under Michael Dukakis?
Kerry’s assets include proximity to the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, good looks, wife Theresa Heinz’s ketchup fortune and eloquence. Yet his demeanor is far more aristocratic than the “preppie” first President Bush’s ever was and there is something about him that is not particularly likeable, not quite in an Al Gore way but more subtly. Truth be told, he has never been an overwhelmingly popular figure in Massachusetts. Many Democrats blank the Senate line on the ballot when he runs unopposed for renomination. Every Republican who has run against Kerry has broken 40 percent and his lack of a Republican opponent in 2002 owed more to the party’s weak farm team than his strength. The Libertarian who did run against him managed to win 19 percent of the vote (an awful lot of anti-Kerry votes for someone who ran, according to the presidential campaign website, “without opposition”). If Dick Morris is right, itself never a given, and Kerry is the front-runner, look out.
John Edwards: Edwards has found himself in an interesting position: He may have to run for president to prevent North Carolina voters from drumming him out of the Senate. He is rich and good-looking, and he talks a lot about leadership. He is a freshman senator with no prior experience in elected office who is now ready to be commander-in-chief.
He is the only Southerner in the race, and of course the last three Democratic presidents were Southerners (Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton). It is a lot easier for people with Southern accents to persuade swing voters that they are not tax-my-dog-please liberal fanatics (please refer back to John Kerry). Edwards is also a trial lawyer, and while people do not like what trial lawyers have done to our society and economy, they do find them persuasive. But it remains to be seen whether they will be persuaded to support a presidential contender who has not done a whole lot in his brief Senate career other than look out for the interests of fellow trial lawyers. It is a sign of how weak the Democratic field is that he needs to be taken seriously. If the Democrats were in a stronger position, he’d be toast.
Howard Dean: Howard Dean is probably the most interesting candidate running. He just completed his final term as governor of Vermont, a state that during its transition from one of the most conservative in the nation to one of the most liberal has some odd political conditions. These conditions are such that the state that possibly has the fewest restrictions on gun ownership is also the state closest to approving gay marriage. Gov. Dean was supportive on both counts, generally opposing gun control and signing civil unions into law. If the gun thing surprises you, consider that Vermont’s Congressman Bernie Sanders, Congress’ only socialist who doesn’t call himself a liberal Democrat, was elected in 1990 in part because the Republican incumbent had voted for gun control legislation.
Dean’s “gays and guns” record made it quite possible for him to be the new ideas candidate of 2004. Instead, it looks like he will be among the half-dozen candidates in the race trying to split the loony left vote. Too bad. He might get some favorite-son traction in New Hampshire, but not like Kerry with his prominence on Boston media. If the race gets boring, look for a Dean for president media boomlet. Otherwise, forget about it.
Richard Gephardt: Exhibit A that the Democrats just don’t get it about the midterm elections. The only one of the original Seven Dwarfs who seems likely to make a return appearance (although both Gary Hart and Sen. Joe Biden periodically threaten to), Gephardt has decided that even though he can’t win back the House of Representatives, he’s the man to lead the Democrats in winning back the White House.
Gephardt was pretty close to the center of a House Democratic caucus that ranged from Maxine Waters to Ralph Hall. He was a solid supporter of Bush on Iraq. As far as this field of characters goes, he is not a bad guy, but his candidacy seems like the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting to get different results. His message did not win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and it has not restored the Democratic majority in the last four election cycles. He does, however, have union supporters and could pull off another victory in Iowa. So in this field, insanity may pay off.
Tom Daschle: Exhibit B that the Democrats just don’t get it about the midterm elections. The only person more responsible for the drubbing the Dems took in 2002 than Daschle is Terry McAuliffe. It was Daschle who patented the idea of slamming Bush on the war of terror and then voting his way on Iraq, claiming the tax cut somehow caused the recession but refusing to endorse its repeal and generally taking an anti-Bush posture while in the end either supporting Bush administration policies or obstructing them and offering nothing in return.
It really wasn’t hard to predict that this was not an agenda likely to resonate with very many people. Daschle does have a reasonably good television presence, he is good at blocking Bush appointees and he does have national name recognition. He brags that while Republicans won many key races in the midterm elections, the only race where he went head to head with President Bush (Democrat Sen. Tim Johnson’s reelection bid in South Dakota) resulted in a Democratic victory. Ideally, he would bow out of this race, run for reelection to the Senate in 2004 and John Thune would kick his ass. But politics is not always about poetic justice, is it?
Joseph Lieberman: I mention Joe Lieberman so close to the bottom not because he isn’t important – he’s actually such a solid candidate I hesitate to put him in with the dwarfs and was the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, which does buy him name recognition – but because I am not entirely convinced he is going to run. His public comments have indicated more indecision than fire in the belly. It seems to me that if he was going to run, the smart thing to do would have been to seize the opportunity as soon as Gore bowed out.
This history lesson may tell us why this campaign might not happen: Joe Lieberman was originally elected to the Senate in 1988, defeating veteran liberal Republican Lowell Weicker. Weicker had amassed a voting record so offensive to the conservative pallet that many of them actually decided to support a slightly center-right Democrat rather than back him for reelection. Foremost among these conservatives was none other than William F. Buckley Jr. himself. With this backing, Lieberman defeated Weicker, who went on to leave the Republican Party and win the Connecticut governorship as an independent. From that post, he got his revenge by inflicting an income tax upon the state.
Lieberman turned out to be the biggest disappointment to conservatives looking for signs of intelligent life in the Democratic Party since Daniel Patrick Moynihan – as a wag once said of the latter, he gave speeches that sounded like Irving Kristol and then voted like Walter Mondale. But even that is too provocative for the liberal Democratic constituencies. He will either end up apologizing for his occasional conservative speeches and exceedingly rare conservative votes, or they will combine these aspects of his record with his hawkishness and pro-Israel stand to place him to the right of the Democrats’ center of gravity. And Connecticut may be in New England, but that doesn’t make it close enough to New Hampshire.
Al Sharpton: Where does one begin with Al Sharpton? The Tawna Brawley incident alone should disqualify him from presidential politics, but for black voters who understand how the Democrats take them advantage, a vote for Sharpton is the way to send a message. I doubt he’ll win a primary, but he’ll receive a large enough share of the vote to be kingmaker. And that is all he really wants. I do not have the space to describe what a horrific demagogue he is, so suffice it to say that even the 3 percent he is registering in the most recent polls is far too much. Any further explanation requires an article of its own.
Others may still get in. Florida Sen. Bob Graham is a substantial man, but there is disagreement over how serious his presidential talk is. The bulk of the seven dwarfs appear likely to be with us for months to come.
Of course, we all know what happened when Mario Cuomo, Lloyd Bentsen, Jesse Jackson, Bill Bradley and the rest decided the first President Bush would be too tough to beat in 1992. A candidate no one thought had a chance ended up serving as president for the next eight years. There is a lot of time between now and 2004. A bad economy or the perception that all is not well in the war on terror – either militarily or on the “homeland security” front – could shatter the illusion of Bush’s invincibility.
But really, barring catastrophe – or severe self-inflicted wounds that would be out of character for this tightly run White House – can you see any of these candidates as your next president? OK, let me ask the question again, this time addressing those readers who are not hardcore Democratic partisans – do you really see a president here?
If this is the best the Democrats can do, 2004 will be Bush’s to lose. However, I have been a Republican for many years now. I know that when it comes time to seize defeat from the jaws of victory, my party is often up to the challenge.
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