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Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2004 / 11 Teves, 5764

Michael Barone

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Waging the last campaign |
Presidential campaigns work best when they are geared to the circumstances of the election year. George W. Bush in 2000 conceded that the incumbent administration had produced peace and prosperity, and changed the subject. Bill Clinton in 1992 emphasized his rapport with ordinary people in contrast to an incumbent who seemed out of touch. Ronald Reagan's advocacy of sharp shifts in policy rang true when inflation seemed out of control and America in retreat around the world. The outsider Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 after insiders had disgraced themselves.

Incumbent presidents may be stuck with themes that elected them four years before but sound irrelevant today and thus are in danger of seeming out of step with the times. Challengers have the advantage of being able to create campaigns that are up to the minute. Which makes it surprising that so few of the Democrats have put together campaigns calibrated to 2004.

Jockeying for position. That's especially true of John Kerry. When he was testifying as head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971, Doonesbury made fun of his self-promotion. Kerry was off and running, for Congress, in 1972; he was one of three Democrats who managed to lose in a district carried by George McGovern. His political career was delayed, but the theme remains: He is running again today as a decorated Vietnam veteran who is opposed to — or critical of — a war. He may be having some success convincing Democrats who hate Bush that his military credentials will protect him from criticism on national security issues; he has been running a fairly good third in Iowa polls, and his organizers there are hopeful that he could finish second or maybe even first. That might make him competitive with Howard Dean in New Hampshire eight days later. Still, his rhetoric seems out of date, an attempt to rekindle passions that ran strong 30 years ago but have mostly burned out today. Iraq, whatever it is, is not Vietnam.

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Dick Gephardt, another veteran officeholder, is running much as he did in 1988. He is the decent Midwesterner, longtime party leader, friend of industrial unions, advocate of trade restrictions. Gephardt endorsed military action in Iraq, clearly out of conviction: no clever adaptation to circumstances there. Gephardt is running second in Iowa polls and must finish at least that well; his strategy in New Hampshire is, first, you win Iowa. Maybe he will, and become Dean's major competitor.

John Edwards, in his first term in elective office, is running as an outsider in close touch with the ordinary person and eager to take on big corporations for the little guy. That's a good strategy for a year when voters are angry with insiders, like 1976 or 1992. Except this year there's a war on, and in wartime voters are prone to stick with proven, experienced leaders rather than call in an outsider. Still, Edwards plugs on cheerfully, and his operatives on the ground are the most personable and optimistic in any campaign.

Joe Lieberman, with his strong support of the Iraq war and moderate positions on domestic issues, is running as the moderate candidate, as did Al Gore in 1988 and Clinton in 1992. But that strategy worked because Democrats had lost three straight presidential elections. Whack the donkey over the head with a two-by-four enough times, and you get his attention — until hubris sets in. As of this year, the Democrats have won popular-vote pluralities in the past three presidential elections. True, their high point was only 49 percent, but it doesn't look as if most Democrats think they have to nominate a moderate to win.

At the moment, Dean has run the Democratic campaign most closely adapted to the season. He has won followers not just with his opposition to the Iraq war and his contempt for Bush but with his populist rallying cry, "You have the power!" He is leading in Iowa, New Hampshire, and national polls. Wesley Clark, entering late, has largely echoed Dean's positions and tone; he hopes his military record will make him Dean's chief competitor.

But seasons change. Recent developments in Iraq and Libya suggest that the Dean and Clark strategies may be better adapted to campaign year 2003 than 2004.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2004, Michael Barone