- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

Well, yes, Democrats are in a good mood these days. George W. Bush’s approval ratings have slipped, he got no bounce from his state of the union address, and his base is cranky. Meanwhile, the Democratic nominating processis likely to come to a successful conclusion todaywith the de facto selection of John Kerry — in a fashion that managed to unify rather than divide Democrats. Plus,while the economy may be growing, Mr. Bush is still vulnerable on missing jobs and the deficit. And while Iraq may (though it may not) be stabilizing, the job there has hardly been what the Bush team led Americans to expect.

All that, yes. But that’s not really why Democrats, especially in Washington, are exhilarated. It’s because they have just suffered a near-death experience and have lived to tell the tale.

Although a number of prominent Democrats were hopping aboard what looked like a Howard Dean bandwagon only a couple of months ago, now that Mr. Dean has been safely retired from the field, Democrats are pretty much unanimous in the belief that his nomination would have led to electoral disaster against Mr. Bush in November. In a rare moment of genuine bipartisan conviction, Republicans wistfully think this, too.

What emerged from the Dean campaign during its heyday was that Mr. Dean’s followers would be entirely dissatisfied with a mushy, go-along, triangulating Democratic standard-bearer. Better to lose on principle than to offer pabulum that would lose anyway.

But better still not to lose. As the contest really got going, the Democratic field began to converge on issues around the current center of gravity within the party. There will be no shenanigans: The nominee’s first job is to please and unite Democrats. The primary means of doing this would be to set the switches of your political positions exactly where the party base likes them and to get on with beating up Mr. Bush, not fellow Democrats. The resulting orthodoxy made Mr. Dean superfluous, and so Democratic voters turned to “electability.”

What now? How to sustain the good mood through November? I could be wrong, but it’s hard to see any especially bold policy initiative emerging and galvanizing voters to the Democratic side. That leaves personnel, specifically, the selection of a vice presidential nominee.

A Kerry-Edwards ticket has had the aroma of inevitability about it since New Hampshire. Sen. John Edwards is an appealing campaigner, a Southerner and a plausible future president — so you have most of the conventional requirements fulfilled. But Mr. Edwards doesn’t really put any crucial state into play — the context for Mr. Bush failing to carry North Carolina would probably be a massive defeat all over the place, a la Jimmy Carter 1980. Furthermore, let’s face it: The inevitable is not very exciting.

Mr. Kerry has plenty of latitude because his party is already united. Why not think unconventionally? How about former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin?

Mr. Bush’s selection of Dick Cheney in 2000 certainly had nothing to do with Wyoming’s three electoral votes, nor for that matter, really, with Mr. Cheney’s 12 years in the House of Representatives. Instead, it was about an injection of gravitas into the campaign of a relatively inexperienced outsider to Washington.

Mr. Kerry’s problem is not that he doesn’t know Washington. But nevertheless, the 65-year-old Mr. Rubin would bring the campaign a huge infusion of status. Mr. Rubin was sworn in as Treasury secretary in 1995 after a stint in economic policy-making in the White House. He is Mr. Credibility with Wall Street, having served as co-chairman of Goldman Sachs before coming to Washington and now as a senior player at Citigroup. He also has impressive foreign experience from his unprecedentedly successful handling of the Mexican peso crisis (so unprecedented I was against it at the time, I might add) and the Asian currency crisis of the late 1990s. He also has good timing: He left office in 1999, at the peak of the good times.

But is the Democratic base really looking for Wall Street? Oh, yes, they are. For the same reason they selected the war hero. Who better to resist Republican attacks on the economy than Mr. Rubin? Who better to warn of GOP recklessness than someone who rode the budget process to a surplus, working with a GOP-controlled Congress, no less? Any lingering doubts among the Democratic base will be more than dispelled by a single Bill Clinton speech explaining how Mr. Rubin was instrumental in defeating Newt Gingrich in the budget showdown of 1995-96. (He was. Mr. Gingrich was using an increase in the debt ceiling as leverage for the rest of his agenda, but unbeknownst to the GOP, Mr. Rubin had a work-around in place from the beginning.)

A Democratic ticket consisting of a marriage of war hero and Wall Street could be formidable. It would definitely be a wow. And I, for one, can’t wait for the Rubin-Cheney debate.

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