By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
NASHUA, NEW HAMPSHIRE — So much for organization.
The shock troops of the Democratic Party — Dick Gephardt’s aging industrial unionists and Howard Dean’s teen phenoms — turned out their vote on Monday, only to discover that their targeted voters had shifted allegiances. John Kerry carried Howard Dean’s college towns and won 35 percent support among caucus-goers under 29, a full 10 points higher than Dean. Kerry also won 29 percent of union household voters to Gephardt’s 22 percent, and among voters with no college education, clobbered Gephardt by better than 2-to-1.
The voters of Iowa and New Hampshire live in a different political universe than the rest of us: If they want, and often even if they don’t, they get a close-up view of the presidential candidates. (One study of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters in 1992 found that fully 25 percent of them had shaken Bill Clinton’s hand.) Howard Dean has all but lived in the two states, visiting every one of Iowa’s 99 counties. In Dean’s case, presence made the heart grow colder. Under pressure, Dean exhibited more apoplexy than grace, and Iowans’ affinities turned elsewhere.
Dick Gephardt’s relation to blue-collar unions, meanwhile, was always a curious one: He had led their cause in one losing battle after another (NAFTA, China’s admission to the WTO, the biennial fight to retake the House). The reason that many of these unions gave for supporting Gephardt was that the Missouri congressman “had been there” for them — not that he’d won, not even that they thought he’d win this time around. He proved to be a rather flat trumpet for the sector of the labor movement that doesn’t really know how to run effective field campaigns in any case.
Gephardt’s campaign did have one salutary effect: He helped to steer his party in a more populist direction. On caucus night in Iowa, John Kerry spoke of “the imbalance of power in the American workplace,” and John Edwards was pitch-perfect describing the gap that has widened between the America of the rich and the America of everyone else. For that matter, if Howard Dean proves as much of a flop elsewhere as he did in Iowa, he, too, can still be credited with turning the Democrats into a more combative party. And, like Gephardt, handing his message over to more able messengers.
On caucus night in Iowa, I was in the New Hampshire headquarters of the man who wasn’t there (in Iowa): Wesley Clark. As the returns came in, it became apparent that at least some Clark operatives had seen better nights. The jury is still out on which candidate George W. Bush fears most, but it’s clear that the candidate Clark fears most is John Kerry.
The political space that Clark meant to fill when he entered the race last fall, after all, was pretty much the political space that Kerry had been supposed to fill, but had failed to do so. They were both tough doves: guys with serious national-security credentials but critics of Bush’s belligerence and largely liberal on domestic policy. Guys who would win the women’s votes, but with just enough macho so that they wouldn’t get wiped out among men.
For the better part of 2003, however, Kerry flubbed his mission. His explanation of his vote authorizing war in Iraq was defensive and convoluted, even as Dean was winning away his backers with his attacks on the war and on Democrats who supported it. Kerry, who can be a very compelling speaker when he’s on, wasn’t on. He didn’t just have to connect with voters, he had to reconnect with them, and he seemed baffled by the challenge.
Enter Wesley Clark, the four-star multilateralist, the general who’d helped, indirectly, to depose Slobodan Milosevic in a much more agreeable way than that in which Bush had deposed Saddam Hussein. If Kerry sounded as if he’d been in politics way too long, though, Clark sounded as if he’d been in politics not at all. For a time, he was all contradiction and rockiness, but he quickly learned the ropes and started to connect — most of the time, anyway — as the doves’ idea of an acceptable hawk.
On Monday, though, the prairie gave up its dead. John Kerry lived again, as did John Edwards — at least through the seemingly eternal lifetime of the next month of primaries. They are the more conventional of the four candidates now duking it out (Dean and Clark are contenders; Joe Lieberman is barely a fifth wheel, and a squeaky one at that). But Kerry and Edwards lay a more convincing claim to lead the Democrats than Dean or Clark. They’re at the center of the party (which is nowhere near where the center-right Democratic Leadership Council thinks it is), and certainly more sure-footed challengers to Bush than their two rivals.
From the Democrats’ perspective, Kerry had the perfect Vietnam War — repeatedly putting himself in harm’s way, saving his comrades’ lives, and returning home to become the charismatic leader of Viet Vets Against the War. Wearing his fatigues, he went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concluding his testimony with a mighty question: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” In his early years in the Senate, he displayed some of that young man’s indignation against the arrogance of power, spearheading the investigations into the Iran-contra scandal and the BCCI affair.