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The Contenders


2004 is right around the corner. Who has what it takes to end the Bush dynasty?

Every day of George W. Bush's presidency is a public citizen's nightmare.  Though chosen by party cronies on the Supreme Court - rather than the electorate - Bush has ruled like a king, trampling on the constitution, rolling back worker, environmental and public safety safeguards, greatly exacerbating the retirement problem of aging boomers by looting the public treasury with tax cuts for the wealthiest 1%, and clogging the courts with reactionary Republicans who want to drag the States back to the pure, simple days before the sixties.
And they're just getting warmed up.  Bush's top strategist, Karl Rove, models himself on William Mc Kinley's head consultant, and based on the Bush administration's direction so far, we can confidently guess that the ultimate goal of this group is to wind the clock back to the turn of the 20th century, before pure food laws, child labor laws, trust-busting, protection of public lands, the progressive income tax, the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, a woman's right to vote, Social Security, bank regulation, regulation of the stock market, media ownership laws, the right to strike, worker safety laws, fair housing laws, integration of the military, civil rights laws, voting rights laws, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the Freedom of Information Act, environmental protections, consumer protections, a woman's right to choose, and all the fundamental civil decencies Democrats (and in some cases, Teddy Roosevelt) advocated and passed into law over stiff Republican opposition.

If this history did not make it obvious enough, Bush's bold, ruthless right-wing push over the past two-plus years has rendered the notion that the major parties have the same agenda patently ridiculous.  Yet the Green Party has indicated that they will probably run a presidential candidate in 2004, though, with an anemic 1 or 2% of the vote nationally, they pose absolutely no threat to Bush.  In fact, if the Green candidate has any discernible effect on the race, it will be to offer Bush a helping hand by forcing Democrats to shift precious resources to states that should be safely Democratic, giving Bush an even bigger advantage in the swing states (see 2000, Florida).  Even some top Green Party officials are leery of this surefire loser of a strategy, and Ralph Nader of all people has suddenly become cautious, saying he may not run as a Green if Howard Dean becomes the Democratic nominee.
As ever, and always, it is the Democrats, and the Democrats alone, who can end a scorched earth Republican administration, and it's going to be a heck of a lot tougher prying W. out of the White House than it was keeping him from getting in as an untested candidate with a wafer-thin resume.  Faced with a high state of fear and confusion among much of the public, a mainstream media thus far generally compliant (or should we say complicit?) with most of the Bush agenda, and an opponent who will have 200 million quid pro quo-drenched dollars, anyone concerned about the state of the union needs to take a hard look at the small handful of Democratic candidates to find the one with the best combination of clarity and passion, excited activist networks, media savvy, and the most winning personality contrast to Bush.
Against such a well-oiled machine it's vital to pick a candidate soon and convince the rest to drop out, so progressives can come together and mount their resources.  Looking at the 9 (or is it 10?) candidates in the current field, it's obviously time to pare down.  Carol Moseley-Braun has a respectable public record, but it's hard to imagine the first Democrat to lose a Senate seat in Illinois in twenty years (to a novice conservative Republican in a Democratic state in a Democratic year, 1998) presenting Bush with much of a challenge.  Dennis Kucinich, a four-term congressional representative from Cleveland, probably gets a 100% ranking from every liberal interest group, and has a stellar record against untrammeled globalization, the rampant, dangerous corporatization of our culture and society, and the military-industrial complex, but he has little money, little organization, views well to the left of the whole red zone and some of the blue, and would be the first man in the United States to ascend directly from the House of Representatives to the presidency since 1880.  Ditto for Dick Gephardt, another honorable man with a history of loyalty to good causes.  The last time Gephardt ran for president, in 1988, he was trounced by political flyweight Michael Dukakis, and outside of Iowa he will most likely be trounced again this year, due to his irremediable blandness and his resultant inability to excite many voters.  He has the endorsement of the Teamsters for his opposition to anti-labor trade policies, but this could be nothing but an out for the Teamsters:  if Gephardt is eliminated in the primaries, the Teamsters could then endorse the Republican in the race, as they did in '72, '80, '84 and '88, if it looks like the Democrat will lose come Labor Day 2004.  Also in the race is Al Sharpton, who has contributed the most concise take on the Bush tax cuts yet ("It's like Jim Jones giving you Kool-Aid ... It tastes good but it will kill you"), and provides a voice for terminally neglected inner city residents, but is more likely to win the lottery than become president.

Stuck in the middle of the pack - neither shoe-outs nor top-tier candidates - are two senators: Bob Graham of Florida and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.  It's not as easy to dismiss either of these candidate's higher aspirations, but it's easy enough.  Joe Lieberman plays the role of a serious candidate before his friends in the press, but is relying almost entirely on his appointment as Gore's vice presidential partner to keep his poll numbers afloat among party regulars, even as he has criticized the Gore campaign's populist bent.  Lieberman is trying to present his long-time genuflection before the defense industry, and his interrelated support for interventions abroad, as a trump card against other Democratic candidates, particularly Howard Dean, who have more reluctance to make America the world's policeman.  Lieberman is also ribbing fellow contenders over their support for social programs and their opposition to unconditional free trade.  These messages play well with donation-giving corporations, elite media interests and some swing voters, but most Democratic primary voters won't respond well to values lectures from such a craven opportunist who happens to be about as exciting as a bowl of Quaker oats.

Beginning with his underdog gubernatorial victory in 1978, Bob Graham has never lost an election in Florida, ground central.  For years Bob Graham has been largely in the background, but since deciding to run for president, he has used his post on the Senate Intelligence Committee to attack Bush's huge (some may think self-interested) lapses in security spending, particularly to localities, Bush's carelessness in focusing military attention on an empty threat (Iraq) when there are more dangerous, ever present dangers (Al Queda, North Korea), and Bush's imperial secrecy, particularly the administration effort, thus far successful, to shield from the public 28 pages of a recent report on 9/11 wherein is outlined Bush's deprecatory treatment of the Saudis and hijacker ties to some members of the Saudi ruling family.  Graham's drawbacks are a low-key personality, the fact that he has never walked the media gauntlet, his lack of money or an activist base, and the possibility that he could face major trouble in the early primaries before Super Tuesday in the south.  He has a slim sleeper potential at best.   

A generous reading of the present field yields just three candidates who have the money, the drive, the support and the salability to be a potentially competitive Democratic nominee.  John Kerry is a long-time (19 years) senator from Massachusetts with a very impressive resume which includes support for universal health coverage, environmental protections (including protection of the Alaskan National Wildlife Preserve) and energy independence, a very progressive voting record, good looks, loads of money, an alpha male physical presence, and a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam to boot (after his valor on the battlefield Kerry became a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War).  Despite what Christopher Hitchens, the high priest of the chickenhawk scribblers, and other members of the media say about Kerry's perceived waffling on Iraq (for the intervention, against the unilateral handling of reconstruction), Kerry has an authority on foreign policy and security issues - the biggest Democratic weakness in the eyes of the average voter - that none other in the current field can lay claim to.  In 1985, Kerry became a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which helped publicize Ollie North's unconstitutional operation in Nicaragua.  As part of an investigation into the North shenanigans, Kerry contributed to a famous report that included mention of connections between the CIA and drug-smuggling Contras.
Kerry is a firm believer in the Democratic tradition of multilateral internationalism.  Part of Kerry's internationalism includes support for free trade agreements, which may not play well with labor interests.  Kerry's biggest weakness is that he's essentially an unreconstructed liberal from Massachusetts, which could be the death knell for his candidacy throughout the south and many other areas in the red zone.

John Edwards is a senator from North Carolina who has decided to run for president during his first term in public office, which is almost unheard of.  He possesses a growing, solid command of policy specifics and has drawn up a policy manifesto entitled "Real Solutions for America", which includes his plans to provide a tax credit to first-time home buyers, matching retirement savings accounts for those making under $50,000 a year, and a plan to make health insurance mandatory for those under 21.  Edwards is running as an anger-free Southern populist in the Clinton mold, favoring scholarships for people who agree to teach in inner city schools for five years and a repeal of the regressive aspects of the Bush tax cut.  He has supported the Iraq war all along, but has criticized the unilateral handling of the reconstruction.  He supports commonsense proposals to federalize security of chemical and nuclear facilities that have been bottled up by the Republicans.  He has been ambiguous about trade, expressing concern for North Carolina industries adversely affected by globalization while voting to give President Bush authority to negotiate fast-track trade agreements.  He has great strengths in the gentility of his manner, which can play all around the country, his struggles on behalf of the little guy as a trial lawyer, his photogenics, and his life story (he is self-made in the Horatio Alger way Republicans love to mythologize).
But Edward's poll numbers are low because he has spent much time of late fundraising, rather than campaigning, and has by far the least experience in the field, including experience dealing with the media - observers are wondering if he has a glass jaw.  According to a story that was leaked to the press some months back, Edwards was at one time feared enough by the White House that they had drawn up a plan to tar and feather him with the liberal bogeyman label, but that role has been seized by Howard Dean (drum roll, please).

Simultaneous appearances on the covers of Time and Newsweek have helped Howard Dean solidify his position as the current Democratic frontrunner.  Despite what anyone says (or plants in the media) about Dean, his record as the governor of Vermont from 1992 - 2002 was mostly centrist.  He often opposed the social spending wish lists of the lefty Democratic legislature in order to keep Vermont's budget in balance (Vermont currently is one of the few states in the nation that is not drowning in debt, thanks to Dean's fiscal responsibility, a concept about as familiar to Bush as cuneiform).
In the spirit of responsible public outlays, Dean has called for full repeal of the Bush tax cuts to fund healthcare coverage for the uninsured and other glaring gaps in our infrastructure.  Governor Dean extended healthcare to all children in New Hampshire, mandated mammogram coverage in the state health plan, and extended prescription drug benefits to those up to 400% of the poverty level.  As a doctor, Dean brings a wealth of ideas and interest to the issue.  Dean is also very well known for signing the first civil unions bill in the country, but has expressed opposition to gay marriage.  Dean has laid out a long-term environmental plan that would have the US using 20% renewable fuels by 2020, and Dean has shown strong support for multilateral environmental treaties.  Dean backed NAFTA, but has evolved to a position of supporting free trade agreements only on condition that they include labor and environmental protections.  Dean is a strong supporter of the right to organize.
Parting with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Dean was a strong supporter of welfare "reform".  In another break with the left, Dean has said gun laws ought to be a state issue, a tacit admittance that he would sign no new gun control legislation, though he has expressed support for the Brady bill, the assault weapons ban and gun show restrictions.  Dean has said he would not reduce the bloated defense budget, but would simply spend the money more effectively.  Though the death penalty is a virtual non-issue at the presidential level, Dean also challenges liberal orthodoxy in his support of the death penalty under narrow circumstances (terrorist acts, crimes against children).
Dean's biggest assets, thus far, have been his personality and his trailblazing organization.  Beginning with a strong, vocal stand against the invasion of Iraq, Dean quickly shed his dark horse status with a combination of simple, direct messages to disenchanted Democrats, an unprecedented online presidential campaign that has raised easy money and linked Dean supporters all over the country, and a vigorous, expressive presence.  In a time when the United States is represented by a laughably inarticulate automaton that never utters an unscripted line or appears in a spontaneous setting, Dean is the real deal, a politician who routinely throws away the script so he can speak his mind.  Call it a 180 degree turn toward public accountability.
The most obvious sign of Dean's pre-eminence is the sudden wave of flack he has received in the media.  Over the past few weeks Dean has been attacked directly or indirectly by Lieberman, Kerry, the Democratic Leadership Council and liberal, conservative, and closet conservative members of the media.  The White House has jumped on the bandwagon by intimating that it would relish a Dean nomination.  As ever, this could be a bluff, part of the eternal White House confidence game (remember Bush strategists saying they were certain he would get more than 300 electoral votes in 2000?), or maybe it's true.  Dean has energized a plurality of angry progressives, but to sell nationally (assuming he wins the primary), Dean would have to pull a majority of moderates, something he hasn't done yet.  Dean is an adept politician, so it is still possible that he will broaden his appeal.
There are a lot of dynamics in play that could affect Dean more than anything he does or doesn't do as a candidate.  If the economy remains in the tank, no new terrorist attacks occur, and the media treats Dean even nominally fairer than they treated Al Gore, Dean could have a shot.  However, if the situation in Iraq cools down, and the WMD story stays underground (or WMDs are found), Dean's bedrock anti-war position and clear-spoken populism may not catch on with the undecideds.  If the economy recovers, and/or there is another terrorist attack, Bush could pull away. 

There is a small (but growing) body of Democrats who calibrate the degree of difficulty in unseating Bush and come to the conclusion that none of the current candidates is up to task.  In times of siege, or perceived siege, it's natural for a populace to shift right, out of fear and paranoia.  Unless this state of fear abates - or Bush gets caught up in a scandal that the major media don't abandon for a change - the belief is that the only hope of saving the country from four more ghoulish years of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft lies in the person of Wes Clark.  Called "The Ideal Candidate" by the Atlantic Monthly, Wes Clark offers astounding credentials:  he graduated first in his class at West Point in 1966 and received a masters degree in Philosophy, Economics and Politics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.  Clark's role as supreme allied commander of the NATO forces that stopped genocide in Kosovo is complemented by his Defense Distinguished Service Medal, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and the Medal of Freedom.  He hails from Little Rock, which gives him a leg up in the South, the very heart of Bush's base.  He is forceful and articulate in his denunciations of Bush's bullying unilateralism, is liberal on social issues, has (so far) established a decent relationship with the press, and is not as vulnerable to caricature from the right, because he's everything they fantasize that their candidates should be, and much more.  Most importantly, with his vast military experience and knowledge of world affairs, he has an untouchable credibility that could neutralize Bush on the vital issue of national security.  Freed of the fear factor that has been the criminally cynical lynchpin of Bush's political success, a majority of the voting public just might repair our international credibility by making the States a freer, fairer, more open country in a safer world.
The question is:  could Clark catch on?  Clark would have to raise a lot of money, soon, differentiate himself from the rest of the pack, and overtake Dean (or anyone else who catches fire) in the Democratic primaries, where Clark's prime fitness for the general may not have much impact.  Esquire magazine has called Clark "The man who can beat Bush (if he wants to)" ; will Democratic primary voters give him the opportunity? 

There are no thunderbolt-throwers like Bill Clinton in the current pack, but Bush's tumbling numbers have revealed a previously hidden window of vulnerability.  Fresh excitement on the Democratic campaign trail, in combination with what we know will be a big effort by all the groups most adversely effected by Bush's right-wing juggernaut (labor unions, environmental activists, pro-choice and civil rights groups), could provide an in.  If those of us who care about the future of the United States coalesce around the best candidate and push hard to spread our message, it's possible we may send the Bush family packing, once and for all.


© Dan Benbow, 2004 



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