The Gore Endorsement and the 2004 Race
I said earlier that I would post something on the Gore endorsement and how it affects the race. At the outset here, I am compelled in the interests of fairness and transparency to make several self-disclosures. First, I am still a John Kerry supporter and plan to remain one, although I am also a political realist. Second, I was an Al Gore supporter long before I ever supported Bill Clinton. And third, I still retain serious doubts about Dean’s ability to beat Bush in a national election, no matter how much he has energized the base and how sharp his campaign operation has been so far.
Having said those things let me offer the following thoughts.
First, Gore’s move was based on his assessment that the war will be the defining issue in next year’s campaign and Gore has concluded therefore that the only major candidate who is right on that issue is Dean. Such an argument by Gore and others seems to mean that they feel that the economy will not be the defining issue. Even the guys on Fox News last night (Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol) agreed that the war would be the defining issue next year. But this begs the real question behind the Dean campaign, which is can a candidate base his whole claim to the presidency on being against the Iraq war? And knowing that Karl wants to run on taxes as well, is not Dean vulnerable in a general election for being anti-war and appearing pro-tax increase through the repeal of the middle class cuts?
Second, Gore desperately wants to beat Bush next year because he knows the damage to this country from another four years of this regime, and he feels the best way to do that is to stop the Democratic infighting now and cement Dean now as the nominee in waiting so that the party can unify early and focus all financial resources in one candidate. But in anointing Dean as the nominee in waiting before the votes are cast, has not Gore unleashed early the full force of the anti-Dean forces amongst the party elites to focus their efforts and pull behind one or two alternatives who over the long haul have the best chance to slow down Dean? And won’t the media now treat Dean as the nominee in waiting and begin the trashing they have somewhat shielded him from so far? I believe that Gore’s action will ratchet up the efforts and money behind Wesley Clark and possibly to a lesser degree Kerry and Gephardt, but it is more likely that only Clark will see the full support of the anti-Dean movement, while Lieberman and Edwards will see new pressure for their exit so that the field is thinned to a clear anti-Dean choice by the elites.
Third, Gore has rightly concluded that Dean has done a remarkable job with an outstanding campaign of connecting with the base of the party, and would be best positioned of all the candidates to carry the base with him to the polls next year. Gore feels that in an age of polarized Karl Rove politics that the only successful strategy will be to campaign from your base and reach out to swing independent voters, rather than appealing to the swing voters first and then reaching back for your base. Dean is obviously executing the time-honored maneuver of running towards the base in the primaries and back to the middle in the general election, just like Bush and other successful politicians have done. But we are still left with a fundamental question: can a base-oriented campaign that may not yet inspire sufficient confidence amongst swing voters in its ability to do a better job on national security be successful against an incumbent with tons of money in a general election? And in banking on your base showing up first as the prerequisite for success next year, will they show up to the degree that can offset any losses of swing voters to your incumbent opponent, who will smear you on taxes and national security with a fawning press?
Fourth, Gore can obviously help himself and Dean at the same time by separating himself from the Clinton/Clark campaign and seize his own leadership spot of the party, from where he will either get a lot of credit for a winning campaign next year, or be looked at as the obvious alternative to Hillary in 2008 with a claim on the Dean voters should Dean lose next year. But in doing this, he has also unleashed the DLC types to paint him and Dean as running away from a popular Bill Clinton and his record of moving the party to the center. Lieberman has already started this whining. As such, is it really good to have Dean seen as lining up with Gore's attempt to separate himself from Clinton’s centrist approach when the primary beneficiary and recipient of the anti-Dean movement may be a four-star general currently hand in glove with the Clinton crowd?
The war will be a critical issue in next year’s race, as will national security and taxes, because these are the only issues that Bush is prepared to run on. He will not get the bounce on Medicare that he is hoping for, and he certainly has nothing else to trumpet. So why would the Democrats run an anti-war candidate who will be easily and wrongly smeared as unequipped to protect the country but only too ready to raise taxes? Yes, Dean will fight Bush face to face and keep the base motivated all the way to the end. And he will make a major issue of the wrongness of the war and Bush’s judgment.
But can an anti-war candidate lacking national security experience in a post 9/11 world count on his base to get him over the top in a 2004 electoral map through anger against an incumbent portraying him as a tax increaser to boot?
This will be the biggest lab experiment the Democratic Party has faced, but with huge consequences for failure. Can the base get the candidate it wants, make the war the overriding issue of the campaign, run strong enough to not lose any more ground in the House and Senate races in 2004, and win the White House?
Al Gore thinks so. I remain unconvinced.
Update: In the interest of accuracy, I checked the latest national head to head poll I could find, taken through Monday. The Quinnepac Poll of over a thousand registered voters nationwide shows that any advantage that Clark or Kerry had in head to heads has vanished in the most recent poll. Bush runs 9-11 point ahead of Clark, Dean, and Lieberman, with Kerry a point behind them. In October, the Dems ran closer to Bush. So my comments about Clark and Kerry running better against Bush are withdrawn.
So in the absence of direct poll numbers to support it, we are left with the basic argument of whether an antiwar candidate can win against the incumbent?