Beyond Bush-League Politics


A Hopeful Look Ahead At 2004



For what it's worth, the recent Conventional Wisdom among Beltway political pundits is that George W. Bush is practically a shoo-in for a second term as president, and that the likely template for Democratic opposition in the 2004 election will be McGovern in 1972 (landslide loss) or Mondale in 1984 (ditto).
This is CW that's myopic at best and disingenuous at worst. The actual outlook for 2004 is fluid enough that the final result for Dems could range anywhere from Dukakis in 1988 (a decisive loss, if not quite a landslide one) to Gore in 2000 (a narrow win -- albeit one blocked by political and judicial misconduct, in peculiar circumstances that may not be duplicated for a long while.) There are three or perhaps four of the current Democratic presidential candidates who are capable of running a strong campaign against Bush, and keeping the race close enough where, provided there isn't a repeat of GOP chicanery from 2000, they would have a fighting chance.

With DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe and his fellow Democratic operatives hopefully doing all they can to prevent occurrences of voter fraud next year, the Dem nominee can get down to the business of making a strong case against George W. Bush, and an equally strong case for himself as an alternative. Were it simply a matter of facts and figures, and Bush's record as president, this wouldn't be a particularly difficult task. One could argue that a stronger case can be made against Bush than against any president...well, ever. From his reckless and alienating foreign policy to his corrupt and radical right-wing domestic agenda, he's that bad.

The trouble is, his presidency is covered by a mainstream corporate media that in large part acts as his political enabler. Beltway media folk generally like him as a person, even if they don't agree with his policies; they also like how his rhetoric and actions have given them big story after big story to sell to viewers and readers. And, perhaps most importantly, they like how he takes care of the big-moneyed interests that control the media itself. So they go relatively easy on him, in ways they would not for any other recent president, save perhaps Ronald Reagan. This advantage, plus a huge GOP money advantage over Democrats, would by itself give Bush a decent chance at a second term, even if a constitutional change allowed Bill Clinton to run again.

But Bush has even more than that in his pocket: he also has the 9/11 factor. Assisted by his skilled and shameless political handlers, plus a servile media, in the post-9/11 world he has exploited the emotional and intellectual vulnerabilities of many Americans, and sold himself as a strong protector figure against a constant terrorist threat -- a “daddy”, if you will. Voters will forgive Bush an awful lot next year, including a sluggish economy, as long as he continues to convince them that he's John Wayne fighting the guys with the black hats. The current devolving situation in Iraq makes him more vulnerable, but with his money advantage and incumbency he still has plenty of time to turn things around.

The Dem nominee must poke holes in Bush's manipulative “protector” facade, while offering a compelling alternative on national security issues, one that'll change the minds of enough swing voters to tip the scales in the Dems' favor. Will it be done? With a little more than a year to go before a nominee is chosen at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, here's my take on the prospects among the crop of Dem candidates:

HOWARD DEAN
In a close call over John Kerry, he's the strongest combo of ideas, momentum, potential and chutzpah. His aggressiveness has set the standard for the requisite Bush bashing among the candidates, and he's displayed a refreshing impishness that could catch fire among young voters. He is backed by an enthusiastic grassroots movement and his campaign is making promising financial progress. But it won't be easy wresting the nomination from Kerry, who will fight him tooth and nail in the important New Hampshire race, and who for now has more money and a higher level of name recognition. If Dean makes it to the General Election, he'll need to at least somewhat bridge the poll gaps with Bush on national security and personal likeability. While he's the most likely to vigorously attack Dubya, he's currently not the most likely to charm enough swing voters in the GE.

JOHN KERRY
Some say he has a patrician and hangdog look that will be offputting to swing voters; others say he looks like a cross between Jack Kennedy and Abe Lincoln and will energize a good portion of the electorate with that political mojo, particularly if he has a strong running mate. I tend to lean toward the latter, provided he can consistently show a level of energy that has thus far eluded him in the campaign. He's got the money, the gravitas and the political smarts, but so far he's been uneven at best, particularly since his prostate surgery earlier this year. One moment he seems full of vigor and promise, the next he appears listless and lost. Fortunately for him there's still plenty of time to right things, and he seems to have a solid campaign organization in New Hampshire, which has become almost a must-win for him. Even a narrow loss to Dean there would be difficult to overcome later, because the press perception would be that Kerry squandered the front-runner status he had early on, and thus would be untrustworthy as the nominee.

JOHN EDWARDS
He's not making much progress in the polls, although his fundraising numbers have been fairly strong. And Edwards, more than any other candidate, is hurt by the relatively small amount of TV time he gets as part of a large field of candidates. I think the first impression many get from Edwards is that he looks too young and callow for the job of president, even though he's older than Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy were when they were elected. The “callow” tag is probably an unfair one, as he's been both a capable U.S. senator and trial lawyer, and I think it's one he might be able to overcome were he able to get more air time and face time in the individual states. He's no Clinton, but of all the candidates he comes the closest of having a Clinton-esque charm, and that could make a difference. His daunting challenge will be to do well enough in the early primaries that he can make the final four or five in the race. At that point, he'd be my dark-horse pick for a late surge.

BOB GRAHAM
If it were just about the job one would do as president, then Graham or Kerry would get my vote, as they seem to exude the most gravitas and competence. But we all know that getting elected is about more than gravitas and competence, or else we'd be looking back on the Stevenson and Dukakis presidencies. He and Dean (and to a certain extent, Al Sharpton) have done the strongest Bush bashing of the campaign, and in a just world his accusations of Bush's incompetence on homeland security would be gaining more traction in the media. But getting past the pro-Bush biases of the corporate media's “Mighty Wurlitzer” takes more than just steadfast truth tellin'. It also takes an appealing messenger, and here I'm afraid Senator Graham falters. He's genial and earnest and articulate enough, but unless he's got an a hitherto unseen knack for witty one-liners or physical showmanship, he's not going to have enough flash for the top of the ticket -- or maybe even the bottom of it, despite being from the important electoral state of Florida.

DICK GEPHARDT
Not to take away from his effective campaign operation, which has utilized his advantages with labor interests and in the important Iowa caucus, but he's shaping up to be the Dallas Mavericks of the 2004 campaign season -- a prime benefactor of the lucky break. Whereas the Mavs benefited from Scottie Pippen's injury in Round One and Chris Webber's in Round Two, so will Gephardt likely stay in the game for some time after Iowa, thanks to an early primary schedule that greatly plays to his regional strengths, to a large field that keeps the spotlight from shining too much on him, and to the inevitable New Hampshire mudslinging between Dean and Kerry, his two main rivals. But it's doubtful whether he could beat an increasingly poised Dean or a rejuvenated Kerry once it's just the three of them. As with Bob Graham and Joe Lieberman, his Achilles Heel of being Essentially Boring is bound to bite him in the ass at some point. Certainly it would do so in the General Election, were he to get that far.

JOE LIEBERMAN
I'll say this for “Holy Joe,”, all those years of guesting on Imus have given him a knack for the snappy one-liner, which helps in a debate when you have to share the stage with eight other hopefuls. He's still basically riding on name recognition, from being Al Gore's running mate in 2000. But I think it would likely take a collapse of major proportions of Dean, Kerry and Gephardt's campaigns to allow Lieberman to remain a serious contender past Super Tuesday on March 2. Once voters get a closer look at the overly pious and politically compromised Senator Lieberman (a man who lost a VP debate to Dick effin' Cheney, remember), most of them will turn away.

AL SHARPTON, DENNIS KUCINICH
and CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN

The bottom tier of the Dem candidates -- all with little or no chance, but all trying to make their marks on the political dialogue, with mixed results. Sharpton has drawn raves for the wit and chutzpah of his Bush bashing, but seems too thin-skinned and baggage-ridden to move up the list. Kucinich is so far left on some issues, it seems he'd more at home as a Green than a Dem, and he also is lacking in the charisma department, too often coming across as shrill and desperate. Moseley-Braun has sounded sensible and even statesmanlike at times, but she too has baggage, from her fairly embarrassing tenure as U.S. Senator.

THE VP RACE
The job of running mate seems to be Ret. General Wesley Clark's for the taking, if he wants it. “Clinton's General” has a gravitas and media savvy that would likely help any of the top-tier candidates, and give him an advantage over the other oft-mentioned VP possibility, Bob Graham from Florida (who might help deliver his home state for the Dem ticket.). It's still possible, however, that Clark will be a late entry in the presidential race, and if that happens, then he'd have a chance at the top of the ticket. I think it'd only be a fair chance at best, since most of the candidates would have big advantages in money and campaign infrastructure. If Clark does win the nomination, or doesn't want the second slot, the likely VP contenders would include Graham, Edwards, Dean and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico.


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