Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean in Harlem today basically wraps up the Democratic nomination for president.
Apparently, two disparate camps–the Democratic grassroots and “professional” D.C. Republicans–have gotten the candidate they’ve wanted: Howard Dean for president. Dean’s calculated gamble a year ago to oppose President Bush’s decision to go to war with Saddam Hussein stimulated the political erogenous zones of a significant part of the Democratic electorate. While Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards, and late-starter Wesley Clark flailed around to explain their reasons for supporting some aspect of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Dean unapologetically criticized it almost from the start. In response, Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove is reported to have said months ago, “Yeah, Dean! He’s the one we want.” More than a few Republicans remember Mary Matalin saying words to the same effect about Bill Clinton in 1992.
Regardless, based on recent history, one would think that an astute operative like Rove would actually prefer Kerry, Edwards, or Lieberman. In other words, bring on a senator! As a veteran Republican observer in D.C. points out: “How many incumbent presidents have beaten governors since 1960 (when primaries eclipsed caucuses as the main means of candidate selection)? Zero.” It’s true: 1976 (Gov. Carter defeats Pres. Ford); 1980 (Gov. Reagan beats Pres. Carter); 1992 (Gov. Clinton beats Pres. Bush).
In fact, adding George W. Bush over Gore in 2000, one can go further and say that only once since 1960 has a former or sitting governor lost a presidential race (the hapless Michael Dukakis in 1988). On the other hand, since John F. Kennedy won the White House, sitting or former senators are toast in presidential contests (Goldwater, McGovern, Mondale, Dole). Curiously, the closest races have all involved open seats with sitting vice presidents–who all lost (Nixon, Humphrey, and Gore; again the Bush exception in ‘88 underscores how awful a candidate Michael Dukakis was).
Is each election different? Yes. Were there overarching themes in each contest? Yes. The Kennedy assassination would have made it almost impossible for any Republican in 1964. Watergate seriously hampered Ford in 1976, who still made it a close race. The Cold War generally gave Republican candidates an advantage in the ten presidential races between 1952 and 1988 (the GOP won seven of them–all but one by comfortable-to-landslide margins; Democrats won three, with 1964 being a landslide and the other two being squeakers). All of these trends tell us certain things.
But the strength of gubernatorial candidates can’t be ignored. Howard Dean, despite his northeastern liberalism, is already running a better-organized campaign than Michael Dukakis. While that’s not saying much, the fact that Dean may be running a better-organized campaign than Bill Clinton’s in 1992 definitely says something. Dean is a relentless robo-candidate, taking advantage of circumstances to strengthen his position on a regular basis.
Gore’s decision to endorse Dean now shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The anger that Democrats feel toward George W. Bush has been fodder for much psychoanalysis–literally, in the case of columnist Charles Krauthammer. NR’s Rich Lowry in the latest issue’s cover article calls the party “crazy” for wanting to nominate Dean.
But in light of the 2000 race, this is pretty logical. No, I’m not referring to Florida, though that obviously plays a part in it (as the Dems’ convention in the Sunshine State demonstrated this past weekend). Recall that Al Gore got his biggest bump in the polls following his convention speech. While The Kiss was the talk of the media, the fact is that Gore’s over-the-top, mile-a-minute speech apparently registered with viewers. That was the Gore who promised to “fight” for the powerless against the privileged (or some such alliteration). The convention bounce faded, though, with Gore’s bizarre behavior in three subsequent debates with Bush (makeup, sighs, “Dingell-Norwood,” getting in Dubya’s face, etc.).
However, Gore and Lieberman closed the convention with an energetic marathon campaign in the final 48 hours that ended up with the former vice president winning the popular vote and, well, we know the rest.
Looking at Dean now, one can see that he is the energetic/passionate/populist successor to Gore. Like it or not, that emotion resonates with Democratic voters. Will he be too hot for swing voters? Perhaps. But those folks weren’t necessarily turned off in 2000. Also, its more likely than not that Dean will appeal to the bulk of the Ralph Nader supporters next time around. Besides, Gore was the epitome of the “establishment” Democrat for years. In fact, one of the reasons why Clinton picked Gore in 1992 was because he was part of the Democratic elite (as well as being another southern member of the Democratic Leadership Committee). Gore’s blessing will now free other wary establishment Democrats to feel comfortable joining Dean.
Dean is vulnerable, obviously, in many areas. Many people will focus on the war, so since this article is already lengthy, I’ll just focus briefly on taxes and spending. Steve Moore’s Club For Growth is already running ads in Iowa detailing Dean’s history of supporting tax hikes. It’s a good ad. However, George W. Bush’s domestic policies are leaving him vulnerable.
By coincidence, once the reports of Gore’s pending endorsement hit the newswires, the story was often paired with Bush’s signing of the Medicare bill. Or, as the AP headlined it, “Bush Signs $400 Billion Medicare Overhaul Bill.” Now, as the Washington Post reported Saturday, conservatives–including the aforementioned Mr. Moore–are disappointed/annoyed/furious with the administration because of its profligate spending.
The key problem is that Bush’s spending makes the traditional Republican charge of Democrats as tax-and-spenders that much more difficult. The current Dean stump speech accuses Bush of being a “borrow-and-spender” and points to the “$500 billion deficit” as the product of these policies. Will the American public be open to a debate on possible tax increases from a Democrat as a Republican incumbent promises to control spending in the future–after he’s passed the biggest entitlement expansion in the last 40 years? The answer is not as automatic as one might think.
The conservatives quoted in the Post article aren’t going to vote for a Democrat. However, in recent weeks, I’ve found myself conversing with other otherwise right-leaning types who admit they could at least consider voting for either a Democrat or a third-party candidate before automatically supporting Bush’s reelection.
Finally, the apparent ascension of Howard Dean also represents something else, something potentially quite disquieting about the country. It’s been observed frequently over the last few years that the Republican leadership is dominated by individuals from its geographic base–the south and the southwest. From 1994 to 2002, three of the four House majority leadership positions were filled by individuals from the south or southwest (Texas had two, Georgia had one, Oklahoma had one). In the Senate, the Republican top leadership position has switched from Mississippi to Tennessee, while the deputy position transferred from an Oklahoman to a Kentuckian. Of course, the president is a former Texas governor.
Until recently, there hadn’t been a corresponding geographic leadership alignment on the Democratic side. The Senate leadership is made up of Tom Daschle from South Dakota (a reliable GOP state at the presidential level) and Harry Reid of Nevada (generally a Republican state, but still produced a close race in 2000). In the House, Dick Gephardt of red-state Missouri was minority leader since 1995, until he left the post to run for the presidency earlier this year. His deputy was Representative Nancy Pelosi of Democrat-dominated California.
Pelosi replaced Gephardt (defeating challenges from both Martin Frost of Texas and Harold Ford of Tennessee, members from Republican red states). Her deputy is Steny Hoyer of Maryland (occasionally known as the below-the-Mason-Dixon-line Massachusetts).
If Dean goes on to win the Democratic nomination–as now seems likely–the partisan and geographic split in the country will be almost complete. A candidate of the blue northeast–with likely appeal to the blue Pacific states–will be running a tough campaign against a president clearly identified with the red south and mountain states. The various values of each region could hardly be more different. It’s uncomfortable to think that even after 9/11, America could conceivably be just as polarized as ever. Given what occurred in 2000, expect a general election battle royal in the midwest states (where at least a couple are annoyed with the president because of the steel tariff flip-flop).
Karl Rove said he wanted Howard Dean. It appears he’s got him. It might not be Bush-Gore II, but it could be the second-best/worst thing.
–Robert A. George is an editorial writer for the New York Post.