Along the Tracks

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Handicapping the Democratic candidates

From my Saturday column in the Bryan Times (Subscribe to the Times!):

By Paul A. Miller
Leader Enterprise

One week ago, the Democratic presidential nominating contest got its unofficial-official kickoff with a debate in South Carolina.

This was less the beginning of the race than a pre-event horse show, each candidate jockeying for his or her favored slot. Once each is positioned, the gates will be opened - sometime in December - and the Dems will charge off in a sprint which will probably be over by mid-March 2004.

No political junkie worth his salt would pass up the chance to handicap the field after Saturday’s trot around the track, so in the spirit of Bill Bennett, let’s see where the smart money should be placed.

John Kerry. The self-assumed front-runner has the resume to be an odds-on favorite, but his performance has been less than impressive, and there’s this nagging criticism that when confronted with a choice, he picks both sides. In that respect, he is most representative of the entire far-flung gamut of Democratic thinking. He’s got most of the top Democratic operatives, and tons of family money, courtesy of wife Teresa Heinz. What Kerry doesn’t have is a coherent reason, beyond resume, why America should choose him as president - he’s like a younger version of Bob Dole circa 1996. Nevertheless, Dole did win the GOP nomination, and Kerry has as good a shot as anyone. Odds: 4-1.

Joe Lieberman. Lieberman is the one horse in this race who might give George W. Bush a run for his money in the President’s Cup. Alas, barring an event which shifts rank-and-file Democrats to a hawkish position (a terrorist strike or a new major foreign threat requiring military action), Lieberman is far too conservative to claim the Democratic nomination in the present climate - he’s a political mudder. Odds: 16-1.

Dick Gephardt. Everyone thought Dick was too long in the tooth to be a contender until he trotted around the track with his universal health care proposal. Unfortunately, his bold move was followed by a lot of panting, and no amount of whip could get him back to a gallop. Gephardt’s long relationship with labor gives him a steady base, but that shrinking segment of the voting public won’t even be enough inside the party to carry him very far, let alone in a general-election campaign. This horse will need the spurs for the whole ride to have any hope of eking out victory by a nose. Odds: 16-1.

John Edwards. Edwards’ problem is the opposite of Gephardt’s - a mere foal in the field. His speeches and policy positions don’t seem weighty; they seem fake, as if written by someone else behind the scenes. He’s a rich trial lawyer, already facing investigation into his fundraising activities. Despite his silver-spoon background, Edwards is aiming for populist support within the party, focusing on “working families” and their supposed battle with “the powerful,” a la Al Gore. All in all, Edwards should be a contender, but he’s come across as a lightweight. Odds: 8-1.

Howard Dean. Dean has been stumping on some pretty solid Democratic principles - health care reform, education spending, corporate accountability - but he seems to have no vision for a future America, unless you count cradle-to-grave paternalism a “vision.” Where Dean really grabbed the spotlight, though, was in his area of least expertise: foreign policy. An early vocal critic of Bush’s policy on Iraq, Dean became the focal point of antiwar sentiment on the left wing of the Democratic Party. Dean avoided most of the conspiratorial invective and anti-Americanism rampant in the “peace movement,” while questioning Bush’s assumed motives just enough to keep the troops fired up. However, reality crashed down upon Dean like Saddam’s statue when the rapid victory was complete. Now, Dean has gone on the defensive, calling for military budget cuts, refusing to credit the obviously successful operation, and popping off that America “won’t always have the strongest military” - not exactly an exciting catch-phrase. But in the Democratic Party, this deep suspicion of American power is broad enough to form the foundation of a constituency. Dean has captured this segment, and if he can get past his bitterness and bring together his various initiatives into one theme, he may well pull out the victory. Odds: 4-1.

Bob Graham. Graham has a resume at least as strong as Kerry (minus the Vietnam service), and comes from a crucial swing state (see “Bush v. Gore”). So why does he get no respect? First, he’s too old - not in age, but in temperament. He’s boring to listen to, even on subjects which he has mastered. Second, he’s too conservative for Democratic primary voters (see “Joe Lieberman”). Finally, he’s kind of strange. Graham keeps a minute to minute log of his every action. Even party loyalists don’t want to know when their nominee clips his toenails. Odds: 32-1.

Al Sharpton. Contrary to much popular opinion, Sharpton is a real player here - something most unfortunate for Democrats as a whole, and particularly the African-American community Sharpton claims to represent. But because other Democrats in the race either offer no solutions to African-American concerns or are corrupt, small-time operators cynically placed to dilute the black vote (Moseley Braun), Sharpton is the only hope for the community’s issues to be addressed by Democrats. If two of the other candidates prove strong enough each to compete in the Super Tuesday primaries next March, Sharpton could well come away with a plurality of delegates. Odds: 8-1.

Carole Moseley Braun. See above (what more needs to be said?). Odds: 64-1.

Dennis Kucinich. Not to be out-peaced by Dean, Kucinich wholeheartedly endorsed all the conspiracy theories surrounding President Bush’s intentions regarding Iraq. This didn’t so much draw on the left fringe of the Democratic Party as it drew in the Green Party. Those “voters” will be too busy desecrating 9-11 memorials, laying in the streets of San Francisco, and preparing to loot the next G-7 Conference to bother voting for the man who brought Cleveland to its knees. Odds: 64-1.

Those who frequent the track may notice the odds don’t add up. There’s a good reason: I’m holding out a 3-in-16 possibility that someone else will enter the field and take the trophy. Who? Hillary Clinton. She may choose to sneak in to the race just before the filing deadlines in December, avoiding months of dinners and debates. The media fawning which seems to be a Clinton birthright would more than make up for any temporary shortcomings in fundraising. Besides, money from her senatorial bid can be transferred to a presidential campaign. Once in, Hillary would be the near-certain choice of the Democrats.

The mere possibility of her entrance is enough for this political gambler to hedge his bets.

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