After Gore, the Deluge

Gore is gone, and the race for the Democratic nomination in 2004 is so wide open, says one Democratic pollster, that “the plausibility of ’why-not-me‘ candidacies has just exploded.”

This isn’t 1992, when Mario Cuomo‘s decision not to run failed to prompt any prominent national Democrats who’d been holding back to hop into the race. Running against Bush 43, apparently, is not the deterrent that running against Bush 41 once was. (“If anything,” says the pollster, “this year‘s crop may have overlearned the lesson of 1992.”) Gephardt, Lieberman, Kerry, Edwards, Dean -- and perhaps Daschle, Dodd and some wild cards like Joe Biden, Gary Hart, Al Sharpton and former NATO commander Wesley Clark -- this is the Democrats’ A-team.

Truth be told, though, this isn‘t much of an A-team. These are, more precisely the A-players on a team that’s underdeveloped. In particular, it has only one (former) governor, Vermont‘s Howard Dean. In the Republican blowout of 1994, the Democrats lost nearly 100 statewide elected officials, including an entire generation of governors who should be heading this list.

It’s too early to speak with any confidence about the fate of individual candidacies, but not too early to speak about what Democratic voters are looking for. They want a candidate with serious national-security bona fides -- which means, a sober and aggressive approach to deterring terrorism. They want a candidate who backs the global rule of law, who opposes the pre-emptive unilateralism of the administration and its diversionary, reckless war with Iraq. They want a candidate with an economic policy that helps working-class, middle-class and poor Americans, that scales back the power of corporations so that they are no longer a law unto themselves. They want real national health insurance, and with Gore out of the race, former Governor Dean will not long have this issue to himself.

By these standards, it‘s clear why Massachusetts Senator John Kerry may have a bit of a jump on the rest of the field. His Vietnam medals -- and his early leadership of Viet Vets Against the War -- strike just the right balance for the tough-dove party the Democrats are becoming. Kerry’s problem is that he‘s more a liberal than a populist: tough on Wall Street when the situation demands it, but awkward on (if not alien to) Main Street.

The two congressional leaders have different strengths and similar liabilities. “Gore’s withdrawal,” says one veteran party operative, “creates a huge, gaping hole for the bland caucus, and that probably helps Gephardt. Dick certainly picks up some of Gore‘s institutional backing.” On the basis of his longstanding support for fair trade, Gephardt can plausibly hope to win support from manufacturing unions like the United Auto Workers, but his backing among the increasingly dominant service-sector unions is more iffy. (“Gephardt is really nowhere with us,” says a leading official of one such union.) Any candidate who can win the national AFL-CIO’s endorsement will have a leg up on the field, but winning that endorsement, which requires two-thirds support from member unions, will be arduous. Union insiders aren‘t thrilled that Gephardt failed to re-take the House in four attempts, or that to the nation, he’s an Old Beltway Face. Many rank-and-file Democrats -- unionists and non-unionists alike -- don‘t much cotton to Gephardt’s cheerleading for Bush‘s go-it-alone Iraqi offensive.

Tom Daschle is a bit of a conundrum -- clearly among the smartest and most articulate of Democratic hopefuls, he has nonetheless handicapped himself by his repeated failures of imagination and nerve. With Gephardt, he was the architect of the party’s themeless 2002 campaign. Responsible to his colleagues for raising money on K Street and in the Silicon Valley, he kept the party from pushing for serious corporate reform earlier this year, thus neutralizing what should have been a good Democratic issue. His initial non-reaction to Trent Lott‘s affirmation of apartheid -- in which personal courtesy between leaders somehow trumped all moral indignation -- suggests a pol who’s played inside ball for so long he‘s lost touch with the world outside the Beltway.

Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman is, of course, the biggest immediate beneficiary of Gore‘s decision. He’s the darling of the center-right Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which could pose a problem for other DLC-ish candidates such as John Edwards. Hawkish in a dovish party, more aligned with Wall Street and its trade policies (not to mention its resistance to reform legislation) than his fellow candidates, an instinctual anti-populist, Lieberman seems highly unlikely to win the nomination. His candidacy may well resemble that of Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the Washington senator whose 1976 primary bid appealed to the minority of party voters who were defense hawks -- and hardly anyone else.

The idea of John Edwards, the senator from North Carolina, has been exciting party insiders since he first won election in 1998. He‘s the child of working-class parents, a trial lawyer with a legendary ability to win big settlements for workers mangled by their corporate employers. He’s Southern, sophisticated yet somewhat populist, and, in a party grasping at straws, the nearest thing the Democrats have to the next Clinton -- minus the brilliance, however. The downside of this fresh-face business is that Edwards remains a rookie. He‘s begun to sound some decent notes on foreign policy; his emerging economic program is all over the map (he favors a progressive tax cut but also across-the-board budget cutbacks that could well worsen the downturn). He’s run for office a grand total of one time. In the end, it‘s hard to believe that Edwards isn’t really running for vice president.

Outgoing Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joe Biden and exiled-to-Colorado former Senator Gary Hart aren‘t exactly newcomers; indeed, each was compelled to drop out of the 1988 presidential race as the result of scandals (in Hart’s case, concerning his private life; in Biden‘s, his fictitious life -- he had appropriated some of British pol Neil Kinnock’s autobiography into his own stump speech). These long shots are testing just how wide the window for national-security candidates actually is. Hart‘s credentials are the more impressive: He co-chaired a terrorism commission that warned the nation of possible al Qaeda attacks before 911, and he’s a trenchant critic of Bush‘s go-it-alone obsessions.

When it comes to national-security candidates, though, Hart, Biden and Kerry -- and George W. Bush -- all take a back seat to Wesley Clark, Bill Clinton’s fellow Arkansan and Rhodes scholar, who as NATO commander is linked to both the idea of humanitarian intervention and its successful application in Kosovo. Clark is a Democrat who‘s reportedly not all that crazy about Bush’s foreign adventurism -- and that about exhausts what we know of him. (It‘s worth recalling that the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, just after its founding in 1947, spent its first months trying to recruit a prominent general with no discernible political record to challenge Harry Truman in the Democratic primaries. Dwight Eisenhower declined, though four years later he announced he was a Republican and won the White House.) Clark’s operatives have been meeting with Washington political players in recent weeks; for now, his intentions are somewhat clearer than his beliefs.

General Clark‘s intentions, however, are a lot less clear than the Reverend Al’s. While Sharpton‘s racial demagogics have grown less noxious and genuinely dangerous than they were 15 years ago, he has still to repudiate his onetime incitements to violence. His race-based candidacy could take much of the black vote out of play in the primaries, accentuating a racial rift that could have potentially disastrous consequences for the party and its eventual nominee.

What the field doesn’t have is a Beltway maverick, someone like Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, a good-government type whose “process liberalism” might play well in Iowa and New Hampshire. Feingold‘s a Reform Jew and Lieberman’s Orthodox, rendering the Reconstructionists a key swing constituency. I hope that clears everything up.

A version of this article has appeared in The American Prospect.

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