While public attention has been focused on the prospect of war with Iraq, the 2004 presidential race has begun to take shape largely below the radar screen. Barring an unforeseen political or terrorist catastrophe, George W. Bush will be renominated by the Republican Party. The Democratic field, on the other hand, is wide open. It is not too early to delineate the factors that will determine that contest.
The place to start is with the field. It is, notably, missing Al Gore, who declared in December that he would not run because another Bush-Gore race would focus too much on “the past.” Most media analysts presumed that he meant the multitude of controversies surrounding the ultimate disposition of the 2000 race. However, Gore would have been a poor tactician if he did not perceive that a focus on “the past” would include touchy questions such as: Why did the Clinton-Gore administration veto tax cuts in 1999 and 2000, thus allow a recession to develop in its last year of power without any corrective action? Why did the Clinton-Gore administration pass up numerous opportunities to apprehend Osama bin Laden, and why did it essentially ignore the growing terrorist threat despite numerous warnings (World Trade Center 1993, Kenya and Tanzania 1998, U.S.S. Cole 2000)? Why did the Clinton-Gore administration not press Iraq, and why did it think we (or anyone) could trust Yassir Arafat or Kim Jong Il? We are now facing at least five difficult situations—a sluggish economy, terrorism, Iraq, North Korea, and the Israeli-Palestinian flare-up—each of which is traceable to the neglect, gullibility, and lack of seriousness of the man Al Gore called one of America’s greatest presidents. Had Gore run, no one can doubt that this past would indeed have been a major topic of discussion.
Consequently, Democrats might consider themselves fortunate that he chose to remove himself from the equation. In his stead are a large number of contenders, as well as the 800-pound gorilla (guerrilla?) of the Democratic field, Hillary Clinton, who professes no interest but must be considered part of the mix. These candidates range from Senators Tom Daschle (South Dakota), John Kerry (Massachusetts), John Edwards (North Carolina), Joseph Lieberman (Connecticut), and Bob Graham (Florida) to Representative Richard Gephardt to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean to serious long-shots like former Senator Gary Hart, former General Vernon Clarke, and race-baiting demagogue Al Sharpton. All exhibit serious flaws. Daschle and Gephardt carry the burden of having led the congressional Democrats to midterm election disaster. Kerry is a Massachusetts liberal, Edwards an inexperienced trial lawyer, and Lieberman shifted so much as Gore’s vice presidential candidate in 2000 that it is difficult to identify his core principles. Graham has heart trouble, Dean is far left and has no sizeable geographic base, and the rest are has-beens or wannabes. Hillary, who far outpaces the announced candidates in national polls of Democrats despite declaring she will not run in 2004, is probably too cagey to be drawn in unless Bush falters seriously. She, like Gore and unlike the others, would also carry the burden of the past.
This does not mean that it does not matter who Democrats nominate; a Kerry general election campaign will doubtless be far different from a Lieberman campaign. It is just to say that no one has yet leaped out to capture the Democratic—let alone national—imagination, and it is pretty obvious why.
What factors will decide from among this rather large group? There are at least three things to watch in the months ahead:
- The inside-outside dimension. Because of the drubbing of congressional Democrats, there will be a strong argument made for looking outside Washington. This could benefit the long-shots, as well as any “insider” who can stake a claim to being “in Washington” but not “of Washington.” It was exactly this sort of reaction by Republicans to their 1998 midterm election losses that launched George W. Bush into the front-runner’s position. Unfortunately for Democrats, from 1994 through 2002 Republicans held most big-state governorships, so the ranks of “eligible” Democratic governors are thin.
- The structure of the nomination process. As of this moment, it appears probable that the 2004 presidential primary calendar will be the most heavily “front-loaded” in history. This means that the bulk of primaries will be held in rapid succession after Iowa and New Hampshire, with the overall winner determined relatively early. Front-loading tends to favor the front-runner by establishing huge hurdles of fundraising and organization. Consequently, the so-called “invisible primary”—the jockeying among candidates for money, endorsements, and poll standing in the year before the primaries—will probably be even more important than usual. There will be a great deal of pressure on candidates to break out of the pack; those who cannot keep up will begin dropping out of the race well before a single vote is cast. Take a look at who is “up” and who is “down” in August; based on past experience, the odds are that not much will change by March. Alternatively, it is worth noting that some states, facing severe budget shortfalls, are considering replacing their presidential primaries with caucuses. If enough states actually do this, the dynamic could change, favoring well-organized but less well-funded ideological candidates, whose motivated supporters can affect caucuses more easily than primaries.
- Iraq. Just as the outcome of the Iraq crisis will have a profound effect in November 2004, it will set the parameters of the Democratic nomination race. If military action against Iraq goes badly—if it drags on with heavy casualties, or if no evidence is uncovered after the invasion to prove the accuracy of the Bush administration’s concerns—anti-war voices like Kerry will gain a great advantage against others like Daschle and Gephardt (who waffled) or Lieberman (who was consistently supportive). On the other hand, if American troops are greeted as liberators and they uncover stores of chemical and biological arms along with an advanced nuclear program, the anti-war candidates—like the anti-war movement more generally—will be discredited and vulnerable to attack, even within the Democratic Party. Whether it goes well or not, war in Iraq has the potential to rend the Democratic Party much as Vietnam did, pitting moderates, Jews, and patriotic workers against liberals, Hollywood elites, and leftist intellectuals. Once the field is narrowed down to two or three serious contenders, it is hard to believe that Iraq will not be decisive. In what manner remains to be seen.
Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.