- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

The details of nominating a president of the United States have evolved constantly in the nation’s history, determined by changing communications technology, demographics, political circumstances and, most recently, a trendy clacque of expensive political operatives known euphemistically as “consultants.”

The election of 2004, particularly on the Democratic side, is heading toward an apotheosis of this process, composed on a monotonal theme on the word “no.” There are two kinds of presidential aspirants. First, there are the “anointed” figures, chosen by party leaders and the media, whose names are increasingly tossed about in speculation, one or two of whom are depicted as frontrunners. Second, there are those who usually hold public office, but who are not nationally well-known.

The second category in 2004 includes former Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. Bob Graham, Sen. John Edwards, and now Gen. Wesley Clark. The first category — the names which have been speculated about for the past three years — include Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Sen. John Kerry, and Congressman Gephardt. The presumptive arbiters of a presidential contest, the media and the political consultants, always attempt to control public perceptions of the candidates — and the standards by which these candidates are to be judged by the voters. When the contest begins in earnest, however, American voters have a curious history of asserting themselves in unpredictable ways. Second-category candidates thus often end up as finalists, and frontrunners often fade.

In recent history, the Democrats, more than the Republicans, have thought out previously unknown figures as their presidential nominee finalists: John Kennedy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart (who came close but was not nominated) and Bill Clinton. Each of them, as they got close to the nomination, provoked unease and opposition in the Democratic Party establishments of their time.

In the frenetic and premature campaign of 2004, without a vote being cast, the list of Democratic candidates has already experienced upheaval. Early frontrunner Kerry has been mired in the background, as has Mr. Gephardt. The Edwards campaign has not taken off. Only a newly feisty Mr. Lieberman appears to remain in contention — although most in the media continue to roll their eyes at his prospects.

The current frontrunner, determined not so much by polls (and certainly not by any actual votes), is Mr. Dean whose grass-roots organization and appeal to the Democratic Party’s populist base has been notable. Mr. Dean is a moderate who has decided to adopt the class warfare populist rhetoric of the most liberal wing of the party. It has been a clever strategy, enabling him to emerge from the pack of his rivals, and establishing him early as the man to beat. But Mr. Dean is also a threat to the Democratic Party establishment, still largely controlled by former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton (primarily through their fundraising and national party chair Terry McAuliffe). Mr. Dean has signalled that he will bring new leadership to the party organization, and this is problematic for Senator Clinton who is known to have ambitions to run for president in 2008.

The Stop-Dean movement has thus already begun. But the Clintons have apparently decided not to coalesce around their friend Joe Lieberman (with whom they also share political views). Instead, they have promoted the candidacy of Gen. Clark. In the abstract, Gen. Clark would seem to be the ideal figure to stop the momentum toward Mr. Dean. A former distinguished career military officer, Gen. Clark would seem to heal the Democrats’ most glaring vulnerability — national defense.

But it remains so far an abstraction. Gen. Clark’s announcement went well, as has his post-declaration publicity. Yet, this success seems mostly to be made of the negative energies of stopping Mr. Dean —and many Democrats’ compulsive hatred of President Bush. Mr. Clark, furthermore, has apparently little skill in dealing with the relentless scrutiny of the media, and has had to bring in advisers to teach him how to do it. Seasoned observers of presidential campaigns note this as a critical sign that the candidate is not ready for this most prime of public time.

The party establishments efforts to stop Mr. Dean is reminiscent of a similar effort in 1976 to stop the imminent nomination of Jimmy Carter. Party leaders and labor leaders, distrustful of Mr. Carter’s upstart success, urged Hubert Humphrey to enter the race at the last hour. Humphrey began to dog the Carter campaign in late primary states, and speculation grew that he would run. But following a rude broadside from Mr. Carter, calling him a man of the past, Humphrey decided not to run, and the race proceeded to the former Georgia governor’s nomination. Mr. Dean may have to send a similar broadside to the Clinton/Clark Democrats of today.

So far, none of the Democrats, including Mr. Dean or Mr. Clark, has introduced a truly positive new idea to the 2004 campaign. By conducting their nominating process so far in advance of actual primary voting, they have risked articulating the contest against the incumbent president indelibly in negative terms. I would not presume to second-guess what the voters will do next year, but I know of no instance when American voters replaced an incumbent president with a nagging naysayer who doesn’t know how to say yes.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1976.

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