I have recently asserted on these pages that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has almost won the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. I did then offer some caveats — after all, the nominating convention is ten months away — but I think that some establishment types thought I was way ahead of myself. Needless to say, it’s time to get beyond the predicting, and ask some practical questions. One, if Mr. Dean is to be denied the Democratic nomination, who stands in his way? Two, what is the 2004 race really all about?
The first question is, what really prompted my earlier prediction that Mr. Dean was on his way to a convention victory? There are nine announced candidates, of which six are considered “serious.” Of the latter, Sen. Bob Graham’s campaign, while making a certain amount of noise, has not seemed to register with the public. I would now put him with Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun as an inevitable also-ran.
Of course, there is Gen. Wesley Clark. For those of us who have observed presidential campaigns for a long time, however, this is a candidacy probably too-long-delayed. There is an air of indecisionnowfirmly established about the general as a presidential candidate — hardly a positive argument for a military knight who is to rescue the Democrats from themselves. My caveat is that Gen. Clark might have a remarkable public personality, including his manner of speaking, that would somehow give Democratic voters political goose bumps and thrust him into the thick of this nominating battle. Lacking that, the Clark candidacy is just talk.
This leaves four men standing in Mr. Dean’s way. Sen. John Edwards seemed like the man who might be the surprise candidate of 2004. To date, it has not happened. His personal charm and attractiveness has been superceded by the astute assessment of the contest by the Dean campaign. Mr. Edwards has put forward little so far that distinguishes him from his rivals. Rep. Richard Gephardt brings considerable credentials and experience to the race, but has been thwarted by the hesitation of organized labor, his largest political ally, to roll up its sleeves and get behind him. Mr. Gephardt showed great courage in supporting President Bush’s military efforts in Iraq early-on, but he has failed so far to come up with compelling new approaches to the complicated problems the nation now faces.
Sen. John Kerry, dubbed the early front-runner, has brought no clarity yet to his campaign. As a moderate who also supported the presidentinIraq,he seemed well-positioned to articulate a dynamic campaign. But, perhaps more than any of his fellow contestants, he has seemed to wander among the issues, allowing Mr. Dean’s initiatives to contain him.
Finally, there is Sen. Joseph Lieberman. It seems that everyone likes Joe, but no one thinks he can win. More than any of the four serious rivals to Mr. Dean, he has expressed a clear and thoughtful worldview about foreign policy and domestic issues. After some early backing and filling in response to the usual objections about political correctness, Mr. Lieberman has decided to tell it like he thinks it is, drawing boos at some special-interest gatherings, and thoroughly turning off the populist wing of his party. Mr. Lieberman, it needs to be recalled, is the only candidate consistently espousing the principles that got Bill Clinton, the only truly successful national Democratic politician of the past quarter-century, elected. (I would also point out that Mr. Gore, also an heir to those principles, turned his back on many of them in 2000.) Mr. Lieberman’s problem is that the populist wing of his party usually has far more influence on the presidential nomination than the centrist wing. And while many like Joe, many of them don’t find him exciting.
My second question asked what the 2004 election is all about. Many political observers think the answer to this question has already been answered. Some of those think it is that elegant cliche, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Others say it is a referendum on how we are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea.
But I think that the actions and words of the Democratic wannabees tells us what the most significant issue of 2004 really is: President Bush.
Their attempts, and the attempts by those in the liberal media, to deconstruct the president tell us all that we really need to know. While his poll numbers are, for the moment, declining, and he seemingly faces a thousand crises all at once, the true relationship of the president with American voters remains inextricably linked to the days and months following September 11. If we look beyond the clouds of today, it will take more than clever slogans and predictable criticism to break this bond between the president and voters. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I have not yet seen any true signal from the Democrats that they know how to do it.
Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed presidential elections since 1972.