- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The 2004 Democratic presidential nominating contest began too soon, with abundant candidates, but without much weight. At nine candidates currently, the field seems curiously incomplete, predictably argumentative and embarrassingly inarticulate. If this is a fair assessment, there will likely be more candidates before the end of the year.

So far, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has been most of the show, planting his camp flag in the Democratic Party’s left liberal base, capitalizing on that base’s continuing resentment of the 2000 Bush victory, and its implacable opposition to the military efforts following the national trauma of September 11, 2001. Candidate Dean has also replaced his record as a fiscally moderate governor of Vermont with that populist rhetoric previously trademarked by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. This, it should come as no surprise, arouses the liberal grassroots in much of the East and Midwest, while maintaining a following in the West and South (where the left is less numerous, but still a noticeable part of the Democratic primary vote). A Dean nomination, however, would likely leave the political center to President Bush — and his re-election.

Sens. Joe Lieberman and John Kerry, and Rep. Dick Gephardt — each men of substance and experience — have so far failed to excite many Democrats outside their campaign cadres now organizing for them in the various states. Sen. Bob Graham, a moderate, has decided to take an obvious path, attacking President Bush on his rationale for the war in Iraq, a retroactive issue that so far leaves most Americans, outside the media, cold. Sen. John Edwards, who many observers felt might be the dark horse surprise of 2004, has left no real impression so far, and like most of his rivals, has spent recent months under the thumb of his political consultants, who, not surprisingly, have counseled that he (as have the consultants for the other candidates) spend much time raising money (so that they can presumably be paid their exorbitant fees).

To be fair to these candidates, the short-term political environment for the Democrats is not filled with delicious opportunities. Mr. Bush, after his response to September 11, has executed two successful military efforts, and seems to be confronting America’s now obvious and inescapable international leadership role with general support. Each time the Democratic candidates get together, furthermore, they wound themselves in the political fanny. The NAACP debacle, just concluded, only proved this once again. The economy, amid backing and filling fiscal reports, appears slowly to be expanding into a recovery that is likely to be most evident in early 2004, which, if it happens, would be the worst possible news for the Democrats.

So what does this suggest will happen next?

I think it means that some other figures will be tempted to enter the contest in the autumn or winter coming. Two obvious names are Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. Joe Biden.

Reportedly interested in running, Gen. Clark would fall into the “McClellan” category (cf. also Douglas MacArthur) of military figures who ran for the presidency attacking a civilian president’s conduct of war. Gen. McClellan was critical of President Lincoln’s handling of the Civil War but was rebuked by the voters. The “Washington” category, of course, has many more successful candidates, including Presidents Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant and Eisenhower — although few of them were outstanding chief executives. (Perhaps the nation’s greatest 20th-century general, George Marshall, did not run for the presidency, but his executive abilities arguably far exceeded those of most of the battlefield heroes who did run and win.)

Joe Biden remains the major potential Democrat — known to be interested in running, but not yet in the race. His candidacy for president in 1988 came to a premature end in 1987, following allegations from the Dukakis campaign that he plagiarized his speeches. It turned out that this was mostly a campaign “dirty trick” against Mr. Biden, who did not so much plagiarize as he did talk too much. (It subsequently turned out that during this time he had a life-threatening aneurism that undoubtedly aggravated his state of mind.)

The fact remains, however, that Mr. Biden is one of the most intelligent and experienced Democrats in Congress (having been ranking Democrat on both Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees), and his conduct as a Democratic leader during the post-September 11 period (like Mr. Gephardt’s and Mr. Lieberman’s) has been statesmanlike. In the past 15 years, Mr. Biden has clearly matured, but the question remains whether his life-long inclination to speak essays instead of paragraphs has been curbed.

Conservative columnist William Safire recently wrote that Mr. Biden would be the toughest Democratic opponent for Mr. Bush, especially if he had entered the race earlier. It might turn out, however, that Mr. Biden’s delay could work in his favor — although, as matters now stand, it does not appear that 2004 will be kind to any Democrat.

Barry Casselman is a free-lance political writer.

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