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Jewish World Review May 9, 2003 / 7 Iyar, 5763

Michael Barone

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Kicking it off in Columbia: First Democratic debate was really three |
The debate among the nine Democratic presidential candidates in Columbia, S.C., last Saturday night proved surpisingly interesting. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News did an excellent job as moderator, asking good questions, directing them at the right candidates, and switching from one format to another. Of course not many voters actually watched. But the debate gave us some sense of both candidates' messages and their ability to deliver them.

Al Sharpton delivered the wittiest lines, Carol Moseley Braun was articulate and ingratiating, and Dennis Kucinich presented a view of America and the world seldom heard since the heyday of the International Workers of the World in the 1910s. But they are not real presidential candidates. Among the legitimate contenders, there were really three separate debates among three pairs of candidates. Here's how they broke down.

Kerry vs. Dean: the battle on the left

The two candidates who mixed it up the most were John Kerry and Howard Dean. Dean said that if Kerry felt he was unfit for the office he should tell him personally, and Kerry said that he needed no lessons in courage from Howard Dean. Clearly they don't like each other. But there is more to their rivalry than that. For it seems clear that they both can't come out of the January 27 New Hampshire primary politically alive. For Kerry to lose in a state where most voters get Boston TV would be devastating, almost surely fatal to his candidacy. For Dean to fail to beat Kerry in a state next door to his, one where there is a substantial antiwar constituency, would be almost as fatal. Dean's scenario is to come in second to Dick Gephardt in Iowa, win in New Hampshire, and have the antiwar field more or less to himself. Kerry, with his reservations about George W. Bush's diplomacy and with his "ambivalence" (his spokesman's word) toward the Iraq war, is probably his strongest competitor for the antiwar constituency. On Saturday Kerry did deny during the debate that he is ambivalent about the war, which probably helps Dean.

So Dean needs to take down Kerry, and Kerry needs to take down Dean. Kerry needs to show that Dean is unreliable, flaky, a conservative on issues the Democratic left cares about. Dean needs to show that Kerry is just another hawk colluding with George W. Bush. Which means we will probably see more of the attacks we saw Saturday night in Columbia. Which is a problem, for both of them. It is always dangerous to go negative in a multi-candidate primary. You may hurt your target, but you may also hurt yourself. Voters will take a look at other candidates and may find one who sounds more agreeable.

Gephardt vs. Edwards: the battle of the populists

Both Dick Gephardt and John Edwards staunchly supported the war in Iraq. Both portrayed themselves as tribunes of working people and ordinary people. Both spoke forcefully and made serious arguments for their positions. But the segment of the electorate they are targeting may not be as big and their arguments may not be as appealing as they think.

Gephardt is banking on his healthcare program, announced last month. He calls for repeal of the Bush tax cuts and a healthcare program that would, among other things, give employers a tax credit for providing health insurance for their employees. It would be, he concedes, expensive. It is a response to a quandary Democrats found themselves in last year. Most of them opposed the Bush tax cuts and, though they're reluctant to say so, want the cuts repealed. That is because they want more government spending, which, they believe, will be good for Americans in need and for the nation generally. But the abstract argument for bigger government is a political loser, probably even in a Democratic primary. The argument for a specific government program, with identifiable and numerous beneficiaries, can be a political winner. So in 2002 Democrats argued for programs to pay for prescription drugs for seniors and in 2003 Gephardt is arguing for his healthcare plan.

The problem is that it is also possible to attack the details of a specific program. Edwards pounced on one vulnerable feature of Gephardt's, tax credits for employers. Gephardt defends it by saying that they're required to spend the money on health insurance for employees. But Edwards nonetheless insisted, and with greater intensity than I expected, that it gives benefits to large corporations. Others attacked it as expensive, which it is. But it is also politically necessary for Gephardt. The greatest economic benefit goes to a few large corporations whose unions have negotiated lavishly generous healthcare plans: The Big Three auto companies are the paradigm case. And a great benefit goes, as well, to the unions that have negotiated these plans, notably the United Auto Workers.

Gephardt's must-win state is Iowa, which votes January 19. Unions, particularly the UAW, have been very influential in the Iowa caucuses in the past. They can claim credit for most of Al Gore's margin over Bill Bradley there in 2000. If you look at the returns, you see that most of the votes were cast in a dozen or so large counties. Bradley carried the two university town counties. In the counties with the state's two largest cities, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Gore ran ahead but not by a lot. Those cities have large blocs of liberal professionals-university professors, lawyers, doctors (yes, a lot of them are liberal these days: look at Dean), teachers-among whom Bradley ran well. But in counties dominated by factory towns-Fort Dodge, Waterloo, Mason City, Ottumwa, Sioux City, Davenport-Gore shellacked Bradley, sometimes by margins as big as 8-1. The unions took a lot of credit for this, and they probably deserved it. Gephardt needs union endorsements, and his healthcare plan is designed to help him win them. But the unions cannot do as much for him in the next few contests. There are few private sector unions in New Hampshire and few in five of the six states that are now scheduled to vote February 3-Delaware, South Carolina, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. The other February 3 state is Gephardt's Missouri, where he will probably win without much opposition. Not until February 7 will states with large numbers of union members vote-Michigan and Washington. But in Michigan the teachers' unions today have as much clout as the UAW, and Gephardt's plan has no special attraction to them: They might like to see those tax credits to the Big Three spent on hiring more teachers. The private-sector union constituency, still important in the Iowa caucuses, is not as big as it used to be.

Edwards's attempt to win the votes of ordinary people is based on opposition to big corporations. He argues, passionately, that he has fought them all his life, as a trial lawyer and as a politician. In the Columbia debate he transformed himself from the articulate, pleasant speaker he usually is to a shouting old-time orator when he started denouncing big corporations. It is settled writ among some Democratic consultants-notably Bob Shrum, a former Edwards adviser who now works with John Kerry-that voters feel they are trodden under the heel of large corporations and will flock to a candidate who promises to fight against them. Shrum was behind Al Gore's "people versus the powerful" theme in 2000. But it is questionable whether that many voters feel so oppressed. Back in the 1950s, when about 35 percent of private-sector workers outside the South were union members, many voters believed fervently that their interests were adversary to those of big corporations. But today only 9 percent of private-sector workers are union members. That is far less than the majority of voters, and probably not a majority of Democratic primary voters, who own stock in large corporations, directly or through mutual funds.

John Edwards obviously feels he has to win in South Carolina, where he was born and lived before his parents moved to North Carolina. But South Carolina has the lowest percentage of union membership of any state. Edwards may have visions of thousands of textile mill workers inspired to vote for him. But South Carolina has been shedding textile jobs for years, and gaining many more in better paying lines of work. The median income in South Carolina is only 14 percent below the national average. Edwards is aiming his appeal at a target audience that may be smaller than he thinks it is.

Lieberman vs. Graham: the battle of the moderates

In Columbia Joseph Lieberman and Bob Graham seemed to be speaking to the relatively conservative primary voters in the February 3 states-South Carolina especially, but also Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. Graham did this somewhat mechanically. He described himself as a centrist; he noted that he was governor of a large Southern state, and pointed out that no Democrat from outside the South has been elected president since 1960; he said he comes from "the electable wing of the Democratic party." Though he voted against the Iraq war resolution, he said that we had to prosecute the war against terrorism more, not less, vigorously. He spoke more aggressively and fluently than he often has on talk shows. But my sense is that his arguments are not ones that connect with voters.

Lieberman, on the other hand, talked in language that did not sound like a Washington insider. He insisted that the Democratic party could win only with a candidate who has a strong foreign policy and is determined to defend the nation. He quoted Scripture. You don't often hear a Democrat do that (although Bill Clinton did, and won). Asked whether he backed national gun registration, he said the Second Amendment protects a right to bear arms which, while not unlimited, should be respected. You don't often hear a Democrat say that. He recalled that he had fought against the violence and filth produced by Hollywood. You don't often hear a Democrat say that; indeed Lieberman didn't talk about it much as part of the Hollywood-supported Gore-Lieberman ticket. He recalled that he had marched with Dr. King in Washington in 1963 and gone to Mississippi in 1964 to register voters. You don't often hear a Democrat do that, because not many of today's politicians marched in Washington or went to Mississippi.

Lieberman obviously has his eye on the South Carolina electorate. As many as half of South Carolina's voters may be black; 53 percent of Gore-Lieberman voters in the state were black. Lieberman's quoting of Scripture and his civil rights history should help him establish bona fides with them, as the southern liberalism of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did (and as John Edwards hopes his Southern liberalism will). But Lieberman is also looking at white voters in South Carolina, and looking to expand their numbers. South Carolina does not have party registration. The Republicans will not have a primary there next year, and any voter can vote in the Democratic primary. In 2000 South Carolina's Republican primary attracted a lot of new voters; turnout rose from 276,000 in 1996 to 573,000 in 2000; 30 percent of primary voters were self-identified Independents and 10 percent self-identified Democrats, and they voted heavily for John McCain. Lieberman and Graham would both like to increase the number of self-identified Independents and self-identified Republicans in the Democratic primary there next year. In my opinion, Lieberman, more than Graham and Edwards, has the vocabulary to win their votes.

The picture is not dissimilar in Oklahoma and New Mexico. In Oklahoma 55 percent and in New Mexico 52 percent of voters were registered Democrats-higher percentages in both cases than any Democratic presidential candidate in those states has won since 1964. In other words, many registered Democrats are behaviorial Republicans or Independents, conservatives or moderates who are open to voting for Lieberman, Graham, or Edwards. Most commentators agreed that Lieberman did the most to help himself in Columbia last Saturday. I think he showed that he is the best prepared to help himself in future campaigning and debates.

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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.


©2002, Michael Barone