RALEIGH, N.C.–John Kerry’s two primary victories Tuesday night brought to mind the lyrics of that old Al Jolson song: “Rock-a-bye your baby with a Dixie melody/ When you croon, croon a tune, from the heart of Dixie/ Just hang my cradle, Mammy mine/ Right on the Mason-Dixon line/ And swing it from Virginia/ To Tennessee with all the love that’s in ya.”
For all the talk about John Kerry writing off the south and not being competitive there, it sure looks like he’s put the Democratic campaign to bed there. And not to strain the metaphor, but while national Democrats may seem fired up and wide awake, a better way to describe their mood is that they’ve had an exciting evening, what with all those fun sleepover guests and those funky Howard Deaniacs showing up to the party uninvited early on. Now they are about to turn in, with smiles on their faces, expectant of great things to happen on the morrow in the general election against President George W. Bush. Certainly that’s what the Kerry campaign keeps cooing to them as they settle in for the night. My suspicion is that they are actually in for a rude awakening, and perhaps some nightmarish tossing and turning in the meantime.
Perhaps I’m being too hasty in declaring an end to the party. At this point, however, the only way that John Edwards (and he’s the only one) can defeat Kerry is if the latter commits some atrocious blunder. The remaining contests in February will likely fall into Kerry’s lap easily. The Super Tuesday states in early March are way too expensive for Edwards to run in effectively, so he’ll be relying on free media and a sort of “buyer’s remorse” to set in. He’s absolutely right about the potential for buyer’s remorse, as I’ll get to, but the 2004 primary schedule simply doesn’t yield much room for this scenario to play out. Odds are, the Democrats now have their nominee, here in early February, which is precisely what Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe predicted and hoped for when he engineered a frontloading of the Democratic nomination calendar last year.
LEARNING FROM HISTORY
McAuliffe and his allies in the Democratic establishment–presumably including the still-dominant Clintons–saw George W. Bush’s Republican nomination in 2000, and to a lesser extent Bob Dole’s nomination in 1996, as examples of the political value of getting intra-party squabbles over quickly by inducing more early primaries. In 2000, for example, Bush rebounded from John McCain’s stunning win in New Hampshire with a solid (but hardly spectacular) ten-point win in South Carolina the following week. McCain had some later successes, but there was already a widespread sense after South Carolina that the nominee had been identified. Similarly, in 1996 Bob Dole lost New Hampshire to Pat Buchanan but recovered quickly in South Carolina and had essentially clinched the nomination by early March.
Comparatively, Clinton’s trek to the 1992 Democratic nomination was a Lewis and Clark expedition. While becoming the national frontrunner in the polls during late 1991, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had to concede the Iowa caucuses to native son Sen. Tom Harkin and then recover from explosive Gennifer Flowers and draft-evasion revelations to close the gap in the February 18 New Hampshire primary with former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. Clinton won only a quarter of the vote in New Hampshire, to Tsongas’s third, but called himself the “Comeback Kid” and lived to fight another day. The next big contests were on March 3 in Georgia and March 7 in South Carolina. Clinton won both of these southern primaries, but that had the effect only of narrowing the field to Clinton, Tsongas, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown. Clinton then had to win most of the contests on Super Tuesday, March 10, and then Michigan and Illinois the following Tuesday, before Tsongas saw his chances dissipate and dropped out. And it took until April 7, when Clinton squared off against a still-competitive Brown in New York’s primary, for the Democratic outcome to become inevitable (and even then the Clinton campaign still sweated about the possibility of an embarrassingly decent showing by Brown in the California primary way off in June).
By the way, all the talk about the new importance of electability over substantive policy differences during the 2004 Democratic race has suffered from a lack of historical perspective. During the 1996 Republican primaries, for example, Dole and his rivals devoted most of their advertising and public speeches to their records and policy proposals, according to a study released later in 1996 by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. But the center found that most of the TV news coverage of the race centered on “electability” (50 percent) or the candidates’ “campaign behavior” (19 percent). So in both cases, the media watching the contest and the party activists participating in it seemed intent on answering the question of who would offer the strongest competition to a seemingly vulnerable incumbent president, not who stood out from the pack on specific issues (otherwise flat-taxer Steve Forbes and hawkish free-trader Joe Lieberman might have fared better in their respective races). Strikingly, in both cases the process settled on war heroes with long Senate records (subject to dispute and attack) and less-than-scintillating TV personas.
Here’s what I don’t understand about the Democrats’ frontloading strategy for 2004. Why did McAuliffe and others decide to emulate the Republican model? Dole lost in 1996 and Bush lost the popular vote in 2000. Clinton, on the other hand, worked his way through a tough campaign in 1992 and won. While the specific personalities and events involved make accurate comparisons a challenge, it is at least arguable that Clinton was able to survive a series of embarrassing and damaging disclosures about his past and political record precisely because these revelations occurred while the Democratic nominating process was still underway. The Flowers and draft stories arose, and then Clinton did “60 Minutes” and was the Comeback Kid in New Hampshire. Additional embarrassing stories out of Arkansas cropped up after New Hampshire, and he went on to capture Michigan, Illinois, and the Southern Super Tuesday states. Next, his infamous “I didn’t inhale” episode and the beginnings of the Whitewater story emerged in March and he won New York in early April. In each case, his campaign was able to say that the “people had spoken” on the revelations at the voting booth. And his Republican opponent was unable immediately to capitalize on each scandal because the Democratic scrum was still going on.
Contrary to the apparent belief of many, spirited and competitive primaries do not necessarily doom eventual nominees for elective office. As long as they don’t get truly brutal and nasty–and sometimes even then–primaries can act as valuable training and vetting periods for candidates and their campaigns, including those who may be veterans in one kind of race, say for Massachusetts senators, but are new to the national stage. This year, with Edwards and company mostly laying off personal attacks on Kerry, a real campaign continuing into March or even April would probably have helped the eventual nominee by securing the heavy press coverage, grassroots organizing, and fundraising associated with competing in major states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, and Florida.
It’s going to be a long wait from now until the summer conventions and the fall general-election campaign. You can be sure that the political class will fill this vacuum with something. Barring a new international crisis or some other compelling news event, what will probably ensue is a bunch of media scrutiny of Kerry’s personal life and political career, some inevitable hand-wringing and Democratic gripes about an increasingly centrist-sounding Kerry (perhaps leading to another Ralph Nader candidacy), and a GOP effort to frame the debate and fix an unattractive picture of Kerry in the voters’ minds. Why was it a good thing to wind down the Democrats’ national Bush-bashing infomercial/party early for this? And why should party leaders be pleased with a process that, once the voting actually started in Iowa, took a scant few weeks to pick an unexciting, blue-blood left-wing senator from Massachusetts as their standard-bearer?
Sweet dreams, Democrats. You’ll need your rest.
–John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal, a statewide newspaper in North Carolina. His latest book is Investor Politics.