Can An Anti-Hillary Candidacy Work In 2008 By Ignoring The Base?
As we head into the crucial months of the 2006 election season, I find myself already paying attention to 2008. I have previously disclosed that I have given money to Mark Warner’s campaign, as I thought that Warner’s profile and accomplishments positioned him well to be the Hillary alternative as the primary season started in early 2008. But I have seen Warner fumble when trying to respond to questions that will matter to the base (Iraq). Matt Bai runs a long piece in Sunday’s New York Times magazine about Warner, both his plusses and his minuses, and it is worth a read.
Bai notes that Warner wants to run a race focusing not on attacking Bush or the GOP, but rather what he, Warner, is for.
When I asked him to assess Bush as a president, Warner went out of his way to praise his handling of the terrorist attacks of 2001, though he said Bush had failed to use that opportunity to ask the American people to sacrifice. He called Bush "the president of missed opportunities" — a valid criticism, perhaps, but not exactly the moral condemnation that Kerry, Dean and other Democrats heaped on Bush during the last campaign, and that a lot of liberal activists long to hear. When I made this point, he shook his head. "That's not going to be me," he said. "If I choose to go down this path, it's going to be more about what I'm for than what I'm against."
Similarly, Warner, an unapologetic pro-business Democrat, rejects the reflexive anti-corporatism that permeates much of the populist fervor online. Aides said Warner wants to set up a briefing with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy center, to get its libertarian perspective on policy issues. "If the move is truly back to old-line 70's populism, then I'm probably not the guy," Warner told me, in a variation on what was becoming a familiar theme.
That doesn’t sound like a prescription for appealing to the base, but rather a plausible general election strategy. But in 2008, and up against a Hillary Clinton, how can an anyone-but-Hillary candidate hope to stop her with a message that leaves the base cold?
Bai makes a number of interesting observations on the 2008 race beyond Warner, that are also worthy of some thought. For example, Bai notes that Hillary will be running in 2008 with all of the advantages of a Vice President (money, organization, front-running status) without being a VP, and yet the only successful challenges to such candidates (Mondale in 1984, and Gore in 2000) came from insurgent candidacies by men who were willing to not only challenge the candidate but also the moribund party by speaking to the passions of the base (Hart and Bradley).
The question for a potential candidate like Mark Warner is just what kind of outsider he intends to be. The problem with Warner's theory of the race — that he can run, like Carter and Clinton, as a centrist, electable Southern governor — is that neither Carter nor Clinton had the misfortune of having to unseat a de facto nominee. They ran as outsiders pounding at the door of the party apparatus, but the weary party more or less invited them in. That won't happen in 2008. If Hillary Clinton does decide to run, the best Warner or any other rival can hope for is that this next election will be more like 1984, when Mondale, the insider, had to use every advantage at his disposal, including the superdelegates, to hold off Gary Hart's torrid attack on the interest groups that made up the Democratic establishment.
It's fine for Warner to say now that he doesn't need purists or populists, that he wants to run a campaign that is about what he's for rather than what he's against. But such aspirations are a luxury generally afforded to front-runners and fools, and Warner is neither. The party's more successful insurgents have all had one thing in common, whether they came from the left or center: each ran hard against the party machine itself. However much Warner may want to avoid this kind of populist appeal, recent history suggests that if you want to emerge as the alternative candidate in 2008, you probably have to be willing to harness and exploit the anger of Democrats who feel disconnected from the Washington establishment and who resent the idea that powerful insiders seem to be choosing a nominee for them. You have to be ready, as an earlier generation of Democrats would have put it, to take on the Man — even if the Man this time happens to be a woman.
If you accept the premise that Hillary will enter the 2008 race as the presumptive nominee, like a VP would, which I do, then can Warner’s approach work if he plans to run by muting the base’s passions against the last eight years?
Frankly, I'm not sure he can.