January 10, 2003

Democratic party hopefuls

Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and now Tom Daschle have all decided to sit out the next presidential election. At first this seems puzzling, since each of these three could have easily won their party's nomination. The fact that none of them wanted it indicates what leading Democrats think about the odds of unseating President Bush in 2004. They did not feel that they had a chance to win, nor do they think anybody else does, since they all seem to harbor some ambitions for the 2008 election, and they could not challenge an incumbent Democrat in that election.

Granted, that does not mean the outcome of the 2004 election is a foregone conclusion. However, none of the gaggle of Democrat candidates left seems capable of winning both the nomination and the election. I will consider the three most prominent, senators Joeseph Lieberman, John Kerry, and John Edwards. The first strike against them is that everybody "knows" Senators don't get elected President since John F. Kennedy, and he was running at a time when party bosses controlled most of the convention delegates. The three senators since who managed even to win nominations, Barry Goldwater, Walter Mondale, and Bob Dole, were all buried in landslides by incumbent Presidents.

There are many theories for why this is the case. Mine is that since being a congressman means entering votes on virtually every issue, votes which are recorded, an opponent can often take that record, pick out votes that seem to support unpopular positions, and put those votes forward as that congressman's views. Sometimes a congressman will vote for a bill while disagreeing with it, in order to effect a compromise or secure more federal funds for his state. These subtleties don't make it into the attack ads. A governor, or vice president for that matter, does not have a voting record to potentially hurt him. Governors need not take an obvious position on every single issue; and vice presidents take no position at all, as they are expected to toe their boss's line.

Still, I'm convinced the Democratic nominee will be a senator, so let us consider each of the three major contenders. First, I do not understand why Joe Lieberman is even a Democrat, let alone how he thinks he can win that party's nomination. He wants stricter content standards for movies and TV. While in the last election he agreed with Al Gore that affirmative action is a good thing, he has repeatedly denounced it in the past and his statements from 2000 seem like insincere hedging for the sake of ticket unity. He represents the richest state in the union, and has helped his state's vast insurance industry by spearheading legislation to limit the damages insurance companies must pay. Finally, he favors free trade and enforcing stricter standards in public schools.

In other words, he antagonizes the bulk of the Democrats' base. Perhaps Lieberman, still flush with the swooning that accompanied his nomination for Vice President in 2000, believes his personal characteristics can make up for the marked differences between his positions and those of rank-and-file Democrats. I don't see this happening, especially since liberals in the party blame centrists like Lieberman for the fiascos of 2000 and 2002, and are unlikely to give them another chance. If we're going to lose, they figure, it might as well be with a candidate who agrees with us.

That leaves Kerry and Edwards, whom I lump together because both hold pretty much the same views. While they call themselves centrist "New Democrats" like Lieberman and Bill Clinton, there's nothing in their voting records to substantiate these claims. Edwards voted against every major tax break proposed during his term in the Senate, including the wildly popular elimination of the marriage penalty. Kerry votes with fellow liberal Ted Kennedy 93% of the time.

The only differences between the two are peripheral. Edwards has soccer-mom-pinup looks and a contrived Southern accent, just like Gore did, but with more "charisma." Kerry is perceived by many as cold and stiff. However, Kerry is my pick to win the nomination, as he is more liberal than Lieberman and more experienced than Edwards. Edwards is running for president with only four years experience in government, all of it seemingly spent preparing for a run at the presidency. Kerry also has a vast family fortune, amounting to over $600 million. Most of this money is from his current, second wife, a scion of the Heinz family. Other Democrats will find it hard to "ketchup" with this war chest.

However, in the general election Bush/Rove will relish the chance to tar Kerry as a bleeding-heart liberal. If the election were held today, Bush would win handily over Kerry or anyone else. However, the Democratic contenders are betting on Bush to fail, and thus are hoping for economic misery or military disaster to seize the country in the next two years (which, to be fair, out of power parties everywhere do). Should that happen, they have a shot at unseating George W. If not, Hillary, Al, and Tom were right all along.