January 16, 2004

Clark, Dean discover sweaters, sex

With the Iowa caucus before us and the New Hampshire primary just around the corner, I thought I might say a bit about the key candidates running for president.

On the Republican side, President Bush is meeting the strongest challenge of his career from Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Running on a pro-war, pro-tax cut, anti-"big government" platform that takes aim at the rising tide of shrill liberal irresponsibility, Lieberman is surely chipping away at the President's formerly daunting command. Senator Lieberman is more articulate than the President as well—something that may come in handy whenever they square off in a primary debate. Of course, Lieberman has had persistent trouble explaining away why he ran for vice president as a Democrat four years ago, but voters seem ready to overlook it. In a Princeton Survey Research Associates poll last week, Lieberman found himself trailing the President by only 11 points—indeed, up a point from December.

Following media coverage of the Democratic primary race, there are a lot of important issues to talk about, but none more so than Wesley Clark's sweaters. In a startling strategy shift, Clark put his suits back in mothballs and turned to the very same aesthetic that Jimmy Carter repudiated years ago: sweaters. The Slate's Chris Suellentrop was among a number of reporters that actually witnessed the General enact his new strategy in an L.L. Bean in Concord, New Hampshire on January 9. According to Suellentrop's hard-hitting investigative report, Clark's strategist Chris Lehane (the man we can thank for Arnold winning in California) bought a hat while the General shopped for a green sweater. What happened next deserves specific mention: "Clark buys the sweater and wears it that night." Just like that, it had happened. Even the political pundit Maureen Dowd, known for her tactical acumen, raised at least one eyebrow: "It's an odd strategy," she noted, because "the best way to beat a doctor is not to look like a pharmacist." Backing away a bit, though, Dowd concluded that "sometimes sweaters can do the trick, and sometimes they can't."

The General will need something to defeat the Democratic front-runner, Howard Dean of Vermont. But several commentators with their fingers on the pulse of America have noticed subtle changes in Dean's campaign as well—perhaps in response to Wesley Clark's sweater strategy. Last week, Fox News talking head Dick Morris reminded America how he helped his old client President Vicente Fox of Mexico, "change the tradition of secular governance" in that country. Bill O'Reilly jumped right in with his usual incisiveness: "Howard Dean's even trying to do that now," he claimed. Stunned at this revelation, Morris agreed, saying only, "that's right." Over at townhall.com, Ann Coulter tried to build on this same idea. In her estimation, Dean's next tactic would be to announce, "that he's just discovered how important this sex thing is." Coulter's coyness must mean she has some inside information, but we can only guess. Will Dean admit to having had sex? Or is it that he will acknowledge that sex is an important part of life? Or that there is more than one sex? For our part, we simply do not know.

So what do I think? On the Republican side, Lieberman has been campaigning much harder than the President, and he does have a legitimate shot, at the very least, to finish a strong second. As for the Democratic contest, the collision course between Dean's anti-secular state/pro-sex strategy and Clark's sweaters is just too close to call for now. I guess we'll just have to keep our eyes on the news.